Forty names, games teams and minutiae making news in college basketball – supersized to 68 for the NCAA tournament:
If you thought picking a presidential nominee you truly love was difficult this year, try picking an NCAA tournament champion. Just as you could argue that there are no ideal candidates, you also could assert that there have been no ideal teams. Everyone has scars, everyone has warts.
Minutes stat: This is the losingest NCAA tournament field of all-time (1). Never before in the 77-year history of the event has every team in the tourney had at least four losses. That’s the case now – and only two teams, Kansas and Arkansas-Little Rock, have four defeats. Everyone else has more.
But even if the Big Dance field mirrors the presidential field, we should hope for a tourney that is free from violence and protest. And jokes about hand size. Let’s aim higher.
The Minutes can make this statement: attempts to Make College Basketball Great Again (2) are working. No, the best talents are never going to be seniors the way Bill Walton, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Ralph Sampson and Christian Laettner were. But at least the game got out of gridlock this season.
The reduction of the shot clock from 35 to 30 seconds has helped speed up play, and an officiating crackdown on physical defense has enhanced the flow. Scoring is up more than five points per game per team; possessions are up; points per possession are up; and shooting percentages from all areas of the court (2-point, 3-point and free-throw) are up as well. Unfortunately, complaints about officiating seem to be up as well – but that’s a byproduct of change.
At the very least, it’s been a more watchable product this year than in many years. The tournament should reflect that.
And if you don’t mind a little more political cross-pollination, this tournament offers that as well.
We have a star player who looks like a young Ted Cruz in Duke’s Grayson Allen (3).
We have Hillary Clinton’s alma mater in Yale (4). Which is not something you can say every decade. Last time Yale was dancing was 1962.
And we have a Trump-esque lightning-rod figure who thrives on conflict in Kentucky coach John Calipari (5).
Just remember when filling out your bracket to vote with your head, not your heart. Partisan politics is no way to win the office pool.
CANDIDATES YOU CAN BELIEVE IN
The Minutes gives you the four teams best equipped to win it all, then four more with a solid chance. The biggest difference between the first four and the next four: coaches who have been to the Final Four before – and, in fact, won it all. Final Four coaching experience has become a strong predictor of future success: Only two of 16 champions this century were led by a coach who had never been to the Final Four before winning it all (Kansas and Bill Self in 2008, and Connecticut and Kevin Ollie in 2014).
Michigan State (6). The Spartans are Final Four regulars, having made it seven times under coach Tom Izzo – most recently doing it last year. This year’s team has the goods to deliver the school’s first national title since 2000 – it has star power in do-everything Denzel Valentine, a second gunman in guard Bryn Forbes, quality size and depth, sufficient athleticism, and a relentless zeal for the dirty work of the sport. The Spartans will guard, hit the glass and battle for loose balls with the best of them. The nagging concern: Maryland’s ability in the Big Ten tourney semifinals to take away Forbes with length may have showed future opponents a blueprint for how to stymie the Michigan State offense. The Spartans might not have the interior scoring ability to counteract a situation where its backcourt is held in check.
North Carolina (7). This is America’s best combination of talent and experience, and that combination displayed itself impressively during the Tar Heels’ march to the ACC tournament title. Carolina under Roy Williams has always been a gorgeous offensive team – but this might be his best defensive squad. The Tar Heels suffocated Virginia and Notre Dame in Washington, D.C., over the weekend, using their length and athleticism to full effect. Brice Johnson is a force inside and he has plenty of company. If Marcus Paige’s hit-and-miss perimeter shooting produces enough hits at key times, the Heels will be very difficult to beat. The nagging concern: Paige hasn’t put together three good 3-point shooting games since early February.
Kansas (8). Arguably the most consistent and battle-tested team in the nation – and the hottest heading into the NCAAs. Jayhawks have won 14 straight, nine of them against teams in the field, dominating the rugged Big 12 yet again. They shoot more than 10 percentage points better than their opposition – a very wide margin indicative of a team that can excel on both ends of the floor. Bill Self loves to work inside-out, but this Jayhawks team is devastating from the arc, making 42 percent of its 3-point shots. And after second-round punchouts the past two years, Kansas will be extra motivated for a deep run. The nagging concern: Junior Wayne Selden has never played a good NCAA tournament game, and senior Perry Ellis has been inconsistent in the Big Dance. Jayhawks need both those guys to be major contributors.
Kentucky (9). If North Carolina has the most experienced talent, the Wildcats probably have the most talent. Again. And it has coalesced nicely late in the season, after a number of bad losses earlier that damaged their seeding. The guard tandem of Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray is probably the best in the tourney, and could conceivably pull a Napier-Boatright 2014 power play and carry UK all the way. Freshman third guard Isaiah Briscoe is an underrated defensive stopper. But the biggest improvement has come up front, where senior Alex Poythress and freshman Skal Labissiere have at last produced. The nagging concern: Plowing through yet another uninspiring collection of SEC opponents won’t have Kentucky ready for the better competition to come. And a team that has never developed much depth could find itself low on bodies in the tourney’s grueling latter stages.
THE MARCO RUBIO POOL
Will be there lurking, just in case the favorites falter. A quartet of quality teams that are lacking a coach who has been there before:
Oregon (10). Ducks demolished Utah to win the Pac-12 tournament in impressive fashion, after nearly giving away a semifinal game against Arizona the night before. Oregon has been one of the nation's revelations this season, an athletic bunch that was not highly regarded preseason but wound up being much the best in its league. The problem: Coach Dana Altman has never been farther than the Sweet 16 in 11 NCAA appearances at three different schools. But at least he's lost to quality teams since he's been at Oregon: last three elimination games came against Final Four teams in Wisconsin (both 2014 and '15) and Louisville (2013).
Xavier (11). The Musketeers have plenty of nice pieces – athletes, shooters, depth, and probably enough quality size. They play fast and fearlessly – and as long as they can avoid nemesis Seton Hall (Xavier's last two losses) they can make a Final Four push. The problem: Chris Mack may be the USBWA national Coach of the Year, but he hasn't yet made it to the last weekend of the season. Mack has guided Xavier to the Sweet 16 three times, despite never being seeded to make it that far, so he's earned some March street cred.
Maryland (12). The Terrapins' talent has never been in question – some people had them ranked No. 1 to start the season. The doubts have been about focus, chemistry and desire, which arose after four losses in their final six regular-season games – including a humiliating defeat at miserable Minnesota. But the Maryland team that showed up in Indianapolis for the Big Ten tourney looked scary: big and skilled and locked in like never before defensively. After pushing Michigan State to the brink in the semifinals, coach Mark Turgeon declared, "We learned a lot about ourselves today." Said big man Robert Carter: "We're back and we can compete with anybody, and it's going to be a fun NCAA tournament." The problem: The tightly wound Turgeon has had a Sweet 16 ceiling, and hasn't made it that far since 2006 when he was at Wichita State.
Virginia (13). The Cavaliers will defend to the death, and they can cut up an opponent with precise offensive execution. They excel at dictating a dawdling tempo, which can frustrate teams that need to play in transition. Seniors Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill are 86-18 at Virginia and starving for the March success that would cap off their careers. The problem: Tony Bennett is a great coach whose teams have more often underachieved than overachieved in the Big Dance. Despite having Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 seeds, Bennett has been to the Sweet 16 only twice and never to a regional final. The struggles late against North Carolina Saturday night brought back memories of previous Bennett teams that couldn't make a shot when crunch time arrived.
THE JEB BUSH POOL
Teams that once looked like prime contenders but now enter the tourney looking vulnerable to an early upset:
Iowa (14). The Hawkeyes have been highly dysfunctional down the stretch, losing six of their last eight. That included a brutal Big Ten tourney loss to Illinois, which then lost by 31 to Purdue the next day. Iowa bears little resemblance to the team that was once 19-4 and appeared a lock for a cushy opening-weekend assignment in nearby Des Moines. Suspect guard play can expose a team in the tournament, and Iowa's is pretty suspect of late.
Iowa State (15). The experienced Cyclones have not aced the chemistry test with new coach Steve Prohm. At times this has looked like Substitute Teacher Syndrome, with seniors who would rather do their own thing than listen to the new guy. Iowa State hasn't won a game away from Hilton Coliseum since Feb. 6, losing its last five road/neutral contests. The Cyclones absolutely have the talent to turn it around and make a big run, but will they put it together?
Villanova (16). The Wildcats deserved and received a high seed, but that has guaranteed them nothing in the recent past. Villanova has been a massive March underachiever, failing to get out of the first weekend in its past five NCAA appearances, despite three times being seeded No. 1 or 2. And although this year's team was ranked No. 1 for the first time in school history and has a 29-5 record, it may not be as good as last year's team – which bombed in the second round against North Carolina State. At least that team could consistently make perimeter shots.
Duke (17). Mike Krzyzewski is the greatest NCAA tourney coach not named Wooden, having won his fifth national title last spring. But he's also had some notable early flameouts on his résumé, most recently first-round losses to No. 14 seed Mercer in 2014 and to No. 15 Lehigh in 2012. And this Duke team is young, thin and not playing particularly well, having lost four of its past seven.
THE JOHN KASICH/BERNIE SANDERS POOL
Underdog teams from outside the establishment who could shock a favorite or two:
Arkansas-Little Rock (18). Nobody has had a better debut season than first-year Trojans coach Chris Beard, who took UALR from 13-18 last year to 29-4 this year. This is an experienced team that is sound defensively, balanced offensively and plays at a deliberate pace.
Iona (19). The high-octane Gaels hit their stride late, winning 12 of their past 13 games. With three players who have made at least 77 3-pointers, they can light up an opponent from deep. They have a star in guard A.J. English, and a coach (Tim Cluess) making his third trip to the Dance.
Stephen F. Austin (20). This is an excellent team that simply hasn't been tested in months, winning 20 straight and the last nine by a minimum of 21 points. Lack of Southland Conference competition could be a hindrance, but don't expect the Lumberjacks to be intimidated this week. Several players on this team were part of the SFA team that won its first-round game in 2014 and pushed Utah last year.
Stony Brook (21). Now that the Seawolves have finally broken through and earned their first NCAA bid after years of heartbreak, the pressure should be gone and they will be dangerous. Jameel Warney is a load in the middle, averaging 30.3 points and 15.3 rebounds in the America East tournament. Dealing with him will be difficult.
Hawaii (22). Good defensive team with adequate height. The Warriors came to the mainland and won the Big West tourney without getting consistent star-quality play from standout forward Stefan Jankovic. If he returns to the dominant level of play he showed for much of February, Hawaii is a tough out.
The bad news for fans of stunning upsets is this: Many of the best mid-major teams were themselves upset in their conference tournaments, knocking them out of the field. That has left a bracket with plenty of teams seeded 13-16 that will simply be outmanned and overmatched, and may reduce the overall number of upsets this year. Potential giant killers that didn't make the cut:
Akron (23). Beaten in the Mid-American Conference final in the last seconds. Replacement: Buffalo.
Valparaiso (24). Lost in Horizon League semifinals in overtime on a neutral floor. In years past the game would have been a home game for the Crusaders. Replacement: Green Bay.
Belmont (25). Stunned in overtime in the Bruins' hometown, in the Ohio Valley Conference semifinals. Replacement: Austin Peay.
UAB (26). Beaten in Birmingham in the Conference USA semifinals. Replacement: Middle Tennessee.
THE LEADING MEN
Just because Ben Simmons isn’t here doesn’t mean Bracketville doesn’t have some compelling players. The Minutes lists 10 who could have the biggest impact on the tournament:
Denzel Valentine (27), Michigan State. Merely on pace to become the first player in Division I history to average 19 points, seven rebounds and seven assists per game, since the assist became an official NCAA statistic in 1983-84. Brilliant court vision, a feel for the big moment and excellent leadership.
Buddy Hield (28), Oklahoma. Already the nation’s leading scorer, Hield nearly outdid himself by throwing in the half-court shot that would have beaten West Virginia on Friday night if it hadn’t come a tenth of a second after the horn. Hield is the closest thing the college game has to Steph Curry in terms of lethal shooting ability and the penchant for getting insanely hot. Has had 10 30-point games so far this year.
Tyler Ulis (29), Kentucky. Inch-for-inch the best player in the country. The 5-foot-9 guard is absolutely fearless and endlessly clever, able to pick holes in a defense and capable of putting the Wildcats on his rather small back. Ulis had 30 in the overtime SEC title-game victory over Texas A&M, and averaged 24 points in Nashville. And he can play both ends of the floor – he was named the SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.
Brice Johnson (30), North Carolina. Averages a double-double (16.6 points, 10.6 rebounds) but can do other things as needed, too. Like dish out five assists against Virginia on Saturday night, or block five shots against Pittsburgh last Thursday. When Johnson came out of his laid-back shell for his senior year, Carolina became much better.
Malcolm Brogdon (31), Virginia. Became the offensive focal point of the team this season, and his production went up across the board – to ACC Player of the Year levels. But like Ulis, he also was Defensive Player of the Year. Whoever he is guarding this week will be in for a long day.
Isaiah Whitehead (32), Seton Hall. He’s played at an All-American level over the past six or seven weeks, living up to the hype that came with him to South Orange out of high school in 2014 and carrying the Pirates into the tournament. Whitehead has averaged 25.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.6 assists over the past seven games – and a wild-hair 4.7 turnovers.
A.J. Hammons (33), Purdue. The facial expression says flatline, but the game suggests otherwise. Now a senior, the 7-footer is finally playing with routine assertiveness and dominance. He’s huge and has touch, with a post game that keeps diversifying and adding distance. In his past six games heading into the Big Ten tournament final Sunday, Hammons had made 43 of 62 shots.
Dillon Brooks (34), Oregon. The explosive Ducks can hit an opponent in a lot of ways, but Brooks is the most dependable weapon. In the Pac-12 tournament he averaged 17.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists.
Jakob Poeltl (35), Utah. Until running out of gas against Oregon on Saturday night, the 7-footer had been pretty much unstoppable since late January. He’s a matchup problem of the tallest order, literally, and will probably benefit from a few days off heading into the tourney after playing huge minutes for several weeks.
Danuel House (36), Texas A&M. The senior was heroic against Kentucky on Sunday, scoring 32 points and sending the game into overtime before the Aggies submitted. Recent struggles from the 3-point line may have ended in that game, and House also went to the free-throw line 11 times. He shares the spotlight with Jalen Jones, but may be more capable of carrying A&M in a tight game.
THE X FACTORS
Four mercurial players who could make or break their teams’ chances:
Troy Williams (37), Indiana. Extraordinary athlete who has upped his intensity and focus late in the season, helping turn the Hoosiers into Big Ten regular-season champions. But he’s also capable of wanton carelessness with the ball, committing a turnover every 10 minutes of playing time. (That’s a lot for a forward.)
Tonye Jekiri (38), Miami. Averages in ACC wins: 8.4 points and 8.9 rebounds. Averages in ACC losses: 4.8 points and 6.7 rebounds. Hurricanes know they are going to get production from the backcourt; they’re much better when Jekiri is an interior force as well.
Jaylen Brown (39), California. Freshman came on strong and had a great February, but he might have hit the March wall. He’s made just 9 of 42 shots in the past four games, after making at least 50 percent of his shots in the previous five games. Since his next stop is likely the NBA draft, Cal needs to maximize what little time it has left with Brown.
Rico Gathers (40), Baylor. Strongman’s playing time and production have been all over the board in recent weeks, indicative of unreliability. But when he’s locked in, few people can rebound with Gathers – he’s had eight games with 13 or more rebounds, but none since mid-January.
FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING
With Rick Pitino (self-imposed ban) and Larry Brown (NCAA ban) sitting this one out, the number of coaches in the field who have won a title has shrunk to eight. The list:
Mike Krzyzewski (41), Duke. Titles won: five. When: 1991, '92, 2001, '10, '15. Chances to win this year: Not great.
Roy Williams (42), North Carolina. Titles won: two. When: 2005, '09. Chances to win this year: Strong.
Tubby Smith (43), Texas Tech. Titles won: one. When: 1998, when at Kentucky. Chances to win this year: Astronomical.
Tom Izzo (44), Michigan State. Titles won: one. When: 2000. Chances to win this year: Strong.
Jim Boeheim (45), Syracuse. Titles won: one. When: 2003. Chances this year: Only if everyone forgets how to play zone offense. Unbelievable gift the committee gave a guy who was suspended nine games.
Bill Self (46), Kansas. Titles won: one. When: 2008. Chances to win this year: Strong.
John Calipari (47), Kentucky. Titles won: one. When: 2012. Chances to win this year: Strong.
Kevin Ollie (48), Connecticut. Titles won: one. When: 2014. Chances to win this year: May need a couple more 60-footers.
TOURNEY COACHES: LONG LIVE THE GRINDERS
The college basketball coaching profession is filled with strivers, ambitious young guys who can't wait to climb the ladder to the rich-and-famous club at the top of the sport. But if you look at the coaches in this year's field, you may notice something funny: There are a lot of guys who got here via the back roads. And a lot of them have stayed on the back roads.
There are, as usual, a few people from the Pitino Coaching Tree (Kevin Keatts at UNC-Wilmington, Mick Cronin at Cincinnati, Kevin Willard at Seton Hall and Tubby Smith at Texas Tech). And a couple from the Billy Donovan Tree (Shaka Smart at Texas, Matt McCall at Chattanooga), which is itself an offshoot of the Pitino Tree. But there is just one Coach K protégé in the field (Mike Brey at Notre Dame), one Tom Izzo guy (Tom Crean at Indiana) and one Roy Williams guy (Mark Turgeon at Maryland). There aren't a lot of blueblood program products here.
There are, however, a lot of coaches who have become mid-major fixtures, resisting any temptation to hustle through that stage to take a job – any job – in a power conference. Maybe there is a lesson to be learned from the guys who have found a level of satisfaction and contentment (and success) at that level. A partial list of the non-bluebloods:
Dave Loos (49), Austin Peay. Age: 69. Tenure at school: 26 years. NCAA bids: four. Previous coaching experience: assistant at Memphis 1986-90, and before that a high school head coach.
Scott Nagy (50), South Dakota State. Age: 49. Tenure at school: 21 years. NCAA bids: three in Division I, eight when the school was Division II. Previous coaching experience: assistant at Illinois under Lou Henson, then assistant at South Dakota State and SIU Edwardsville.
Steve Pikiell (51), Stony Brook. Age: 48. Tenure at school: 10 years. NCAA bids: one. Previous coaching experience: was an assistant at UConn, Yale, Central Connecticut and George Washington, with a one-year stint as head coach at Division III Wesleyan two decades ago.
Randy Rahe (52), Weber State. Age: 55. Tenure at school: 10 years. NCAA bids: three. Previous coaching experience: was a high school head coach, and a college assistant at Colorado College, Colorado, Denver, Utah State and Utah.
Ben Jacobson (53), Northern Iowa. Age: 45. Tenure at school: 10 years. NCAA bids: four. Previous coaching experience: assistant at North Dakota, North Dakota State and Northern Iowa.
THE YOUNG GUNS
Coaches under 40 who are crashing the Dance:
Will Wade (54), VCU. Age 33. Third season as a head coach – first two at Chattanooga. Received an at-large bid in the Atlantic-10. Pedigree: coached under Shaka Smart at VCU before going to Chattanooga. Previously worked as an assistant under Larry Shyatt and Oliver Purnell at Clemson, where he was a student manager; and under Tommy Amaker at Harvard.
Eran Ganot (55), Hawaii. Age 34. First season as a head coach. Won the Big West. Pedigree: coached under Randy Bennett at St. Mary's, and before that at Hawaii. Played at Division III Swarthmore College.
Matt McCall (56), Chattanooga. Age 34. First season as a head coach. Won the Southern Conference. Pedigree: coached at Florida under program patriarch Billy Donovan. Was a student manager under Donovan at Florida as well.
Nick McDevitt (57), UNC-Asheville. Age 36. Third season as a head coach. Won the Big South. Played and coached under program patriarch Eddie Biedenbach.
Archie Miller (58), Dayton. Age 37. Fifth season as a head coach. Received at-large bid in the Atlantic-10. Already made two previous NCAA tournaments, advancing to the regional final in 2014. Played and coached under Herb Sendek; also coached under Thad Matta and his brother, Sean.
Shaka Smart (59), Texas. Age 38. Seventh season as a head coach. Received at-large bid in the Big 12. Already made five previous NCAA tournaments. Advanced to the Final Four in 2011 – last time the event was in Houston. Played at Division III Kenyon, was director of operations at Dayton and an assistant at Akron and Dayton before joining Donovan's staff at Florida.
WHAT WAS IN THE WATER IN WEST LAFAYETTE?
Gene Keady is no longer coaching, but he still will have a significant impact on this year's tournament. Three of his former players who were at Purdue together in the early 1990s will lead their own teams into the Big Dance. The list:
Matt Painter (60), Purdue. Played under Keady from 1989-93, and then served as his assistant. Later succeeded him as coach at Purdue in 2004 after briefly serving as head coach at Southern Illinois under another Keady protégé, Bruce Weber.
Cuonzo Martin (61), California. Played under Keady from 1991-95. Served eight seasons as a Purdue assistant, first under Keady and then under Painter. Went to Missouri State and Tennessee before moving to Cal in 2014.
Linc Darner (62), Green Bay. Played under Keady from 1990-94. Coached under Mark Gottfried at Murray State and other smaller schools before being named head coach at Division II St. Joseph's (Ind.) in 2002. Spent four seasons there and nine at Florida Southern before moving to Green Bay last year.
THE BIGGEST SHOTS TO GET HERE
The five most memorable shots that helped land teams in the Dance:
Wes Washpun (63), Northern Iowa. His buzzer-beating jumper against Evansville thumped softly off the heel of the rim, bounced straight up in the air and straight through the net to deliver the Panthers’ second straight NCAA berth.
Robert Champion (64), Holy Cross. Improbable shot keyed the most improbable run of all. Champion rushed to the corner with an offensive rebound in overtime against Bucknell, turned and fired, beating the buzzer with a 3-pointer that tied the game. Holy Cross won in the second overtime, then won two more games – four total, all on the road – to earn the bid at 14-19. Champion’s shot helped make a champion of coach Bill Carmody, who couldn’t get Northwestern to the Dance to save his life (or his job) in 13 years in Evanston.
Blake Hamilton (65), Buffalo. Made the meteorologically dispiriting matriculation from Pasadena, Calif., to Buffalo as a junior-college transfer – and became a hero in his first season there. Hamilton’s 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds left beat regular-season MAC champion Akron and gave the Bulls their second straight NCAA berth.
Dedrick Basile (66), Cal State-Bakersfield. In the wee hours of Selection Sunday eastern time, the 5-foot-10 JUCO transfer guard rose and fired over 6-9 Pascal Siakam of regular-season champion New Mexico State. His 3-pointer splashed through with :00.2 left, sending the Roadrunners beep-beeping into their first Big Dance.
Jalen Adams (67), Connecticut. Highly touted freshman had a sporadic season until a do-or-die American Athletic Conference quarterfinal game against Cincinnati. That’s when Adams scored a career-high 22 points, punctuated by one of the most least-likely shots in conference tournament history. Down three with just :00.8 on the clock, Adams took an inbounds pass, took two steps and heaved it from about 60 feet. It banked in, UConn had new life, and the Huskies survived in four overtimes on their way to winning the AAC tourney title.
When thirsty in the Final Four city of Houston, The Minutes recommends a visit to the delightfully unpretentious Kay’s Lounge (68) near Rice University. Tell them Carter Blackburn of CBS Sports sent you. Or tell them The Minutes sent you. See you there in early April.