Sixty-eight names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (Forde-and-0 T-shirts sold separately in Lexington):
MARCH MADNESS IS HERE – DANCE WITH CARE
Sixty-eight teams have celebrated the chance to play for a national title. But only one had its celebration end in injury.
Get well soon, Georgia State coach Ron Hunter (1). Well, as soon as possible after reportedly tearing an Achilles tendon in the wild aftermath of the Panthers earning their third-ever NCAA tournament bid by holding off Georgia Southern, 38-36. Martín Gramática can sympathize.
WELCOME TO THE WESTMINSTER DOG SHOW
This NCAA tournament has gone to the dogs. Specifically, the Gonzaga, Butler and Georgia Bulldogs (2). The Northeastern Huskies (3). The Wofford Terriers (4). And, most dramatically of all, the Albany Great Danes (5). If you aren’t rooting for Peter Hooley and Albany, you should be.
Denied at the doggy door: the Yale Bulldogs, who lost the Ivy League playoff game by two points to Harvard, after blowing a clinching game against Dartmouth the week before. Apparently, not every ‘dog has its day, because Yale hasn’t been to the NCAA tourney since 1962.
But really, there are 67 underdogs in this tournament, trying to take down one big dog. Paradoxically, the big dog is a Cat.
KENTUCKY OR THE FIELD?
During Tiger Woods’ halcyon days, the question going into majors was Tiger or the field. On the face of it, it was an absurd proposition – sheer numbers dictate taking the field. Yet Tiger turned out to be a 50-50 proposition from 2000-02, winning half of the 12 majors contested.
Since the Wildcats will need to beat only six teams and not all 67, The Minutes would make unbeaten Kentucky (6) a 60-40 bet in this tournament. You can have the field if you want it.
Several people have said the Wildcats are the strongest pre-tournament favorite since UNLV (7) in 1991 – a team that also entered the tourney undefeated. Of course, the Runnin’ Rebels met a shocking Final Four demise. But the Duke team that upset those Rebels and then went on to repeat as champions in ’92 is the more recent example.
That Blue Devils team was not undefeated – it lost twice in 36 games, by a total of six points. But Duke was ranked No. 1 every week of the season and entered the NCAA tournament as the prohibitive choice to win it all.
Of course, that team had the closest of all calls in the regional final, escaping none other than Kentucky on the famous Christian Laettner basket at the buzzer.
Is there a similar test awaiting these Wildcats?
HOW TO BEAT KENTUCKY
The Minutes polled coaches, former coaches and broadcast analysts for their thoughts on the best way to beat a team that thus far is unbeatable.
One thing became clear: there is no unanimity on the subject. No weakness that is evident enough that everyone pointed it out. To a degree, everyone is guessing.
One coach said, “Use the clock, keep them out of transition.” Which would favor teams like Wisconsin (8) and Virginia (9) – both among the five most deliberate teams in the country according to Ken Pomeroy’s tempo statistics.
But a former coach who is now a broadcast analyst believes you have to push the pace: “Get some easy baskets in transition and on the offensive glass. No chance to beat them if you have to score against their set half-court defense for 40 minutes.” Which clearly would not favor Wisconsin or Virginia. Among high seeds, the teams playing fastest heading into the tournament are Iowa State (10) and Arizona (11) – the Cyclones are the 16th-fastest team in the land, per Pomeroy, and the desert Wildcats are 78th.
(As a point of reference, Kentucky is No. 232 out of 351 in tempo.)
Multiple coaches said a team must have a productive shooting game from the perimeter over Kentucky’s incredible length – the Wildcats go 6-foot-6, 6-6, 6-10, 6-11 and 7-0 in the starting lineup. At the other end, one coach said the key is dealing with freshman powerhouse Karl-Anthony Towns without leaving open shooters on the perimeter. Easier said than done.
“You need to keep Towns off the block if possible, but it’s hard because he’s so physical,” the coach said. “So you need to double him, but then you have to recover to find shooters. Aaron Harrison and [Devin] Booker can kill you otherwise. [Willie] Cauley-Stein and Dakari [Johnson], you can wall up on them -- if you have enough height, they have trouble scoring. But Towns demands a double-team.”
If the Wildcats do miss shots, opponents face the biggest problem of all: keeping them from getting second shots. With their height and strength, Kentucky can own the offensive glass.
“They win on second shots,” one coach said. “You must rebound with all five guys.”
But here may be the biggest factor of all: Kentucky would have to contribute to its own demise.
“A good team would have to play its peak game – get hot from 3, make free throws, withstand runs,” said one analyst, “and Kentucky would have to play below its peak. Maybe well below. They haven’t showed any signs of feeling pressure yet, but the tournament is different.”
The big thing that makes it difficult to catch Kentucky well below its peak: depth. It can withstand foul trouble or off nights by key players, because there are so many other key players capable of taking over. When seven guys can go for 20 on a given night, there is no end to the challenges.
The one factor that the field may have going for it: Kentucky has not played a team that is a top-four tournament seed in 78 days. If the bracket holds (and it rarely does), the Wildcats would have to beat four such teams to win the title.
In that span of time, Kansas (12) has played eight games against top-16 seed competition, as has Iowa State. Duke (13) has played seven, as has Notre Dame (14). Virginia has played six.
So there are more battled-tested teams in the field. But maybe Kentucky is just waiting for the next-level challenge to play its next-level game.
WHO CAN BEAT KENTUCKY
It’s a short list:
Why: Tough-minded, well-coached, veteran bunch who nearly had the Wildcats beaten in the Final Four last year until a troubled UK possession ended in an Aaron Harrison 3-pointer with less than six seconds left. That left a mark the Badgers still carry with them. They’d love another shot. And between 7-footer Frank Kaminsky, 6-9 Sam Dekker and 6-8 Nigel Hayes, they have enough size to make it a semi-fair fight inside.
Why not: If injured guard Traevon Jackson doesn’t make it back to at least contributor capacity, the Badgers are thin at guard and might not be quick enough. Visions of the Harrison twins driving relentlessly to the basket are easy to conjure.
Why: If anyone has comparable pro-level talent to Kentucky, it’s the Blue Devils. In Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones – and possibly Quinn Cook – Duke could put four future NBA players on the floor and it may be better than any four Wildcats. Mike Krzyzewski has been around the big-game block a time or two as well. As cited above, Duke has been through a tougher schedule to get to this point.
Why not: Definitely at a depth disadvantage. The Blue Devils don’t guard especially well, and that starts with Okafor inside. He sometimes plays in fear of foul trouble, which could leave him susceptible to being manhandled by Towns. And there’s this: if Duke’s primary offensive weapon is Okafor, Kentucky has the bodies (and the fouls) to play hack-a-Jah and make the 51 percent foul shooter beat it from the line.
Why: Size, athletes, pro talent, tenacious defensive mentality, and the Wildcats get to the foul line. They are hot, having won 11 straight and trampled their way through the Pac-12 tournament. Worth noting: Arizona is the best team in the nation at keeping opponents off the offensive glass. Sean Miller is overdue for a major NCAA tournament triumph.
Why not: If Kentucky has had a soft road through the SEC, so has Arizona in the Pac-12 – the desert Wildcats may also be lacking in tournament-level seasoning. When the going gets tough inside, can Arizona make enough shots from the perimeter? Not many knock-down guys in the lineup.
Why: If size is a necessity, the Zags have it with three key players 6-10 or taller and mountainous Przemek Karnowski (7-1, 288 pounds) blocking out the sun. Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer should be able to provide a scouting report, and likely would have a lot of motivation playing against his former team. Like Sean Miller, Mark Few is overdue for a major NCAA tourney breakthrough.
Why not: The ultimate unseasoned contender. And frankly, the Zags are every bit as likely to lose in the second round as they are to advance far enough to face Kentucky.
Someone You Least Expect (16). It should be noted that mighty Kentucky once trailed Buffalo by five points at halftime, was lucky to escape at Texas A&M, was down much of the game at home against Mississippi and trailed Georgia by seven in the late going just a couple of weeks ago. If those teams had a chance, so do other mega-underdogs dreaming of their chance to be taken lightly.
Teams from outside the brand-name leagues that can do some March damage:
Northern Iowa (17). Panthers are highly seeded and have been ranked much of the year, so it's not like they're a sleeper team. They've only lost three times all year, so it doesn't come naturally. Coach Ben Jacobson's methodical style is a pain to play against, and he has some tournament cred after taking a No. 9 seed to the Sweet 16 in 2010 at the expense of No. 1 seed Kansas. The ghost of Ali Farokhmanesh will be with Northern Iowa.
Valparaiso (18). Champion of the Horizon League brings a tall, tough, disciplined team into the Dance that has won 10 of its past 11 and has held six of its past seven opponents to 55 points or fewer. Methodical bunch that doesn't figure to be fazed by a big-name opponent.
Wichita State (19). The other Missouri Valley team. Shockers were overshadowed this year by Northern Iowa and largely forgotten about after being upset in the Valley semifinals. But this still is a program with a 93-14 record over the past three seasons, and the terrific guard triumvirate of Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton is still around. Beware.
Stephen F. Austin (20). Lumberjacks upset VCU in last year's tournament and have basically the same team back. They bring a 29-4 record into the Dance and have lost just once since Thanksgiving. SFA takes good shots. And makes them.
Dayton (21). Flyers made the regional final last year and have the core of that team back. Survived dismissal of multiple players early in the year to have a great season, and they are expertly coached.
Teams from power conferences that won't last as long they hope to:
LSU (22). Inexpertly coached team has lost to Auburn twice, and Missouri, Clemson and Tennessee once. Tigers staggered sideways into the field after losing half of their final 12 games. They don't handle the ball – or pressure situations – very well.
Maryland (23). Terrapins have had a nice season but have become something of a two-man team down the stretch, with forward Jake Layman struggling to match his early season production. They don't have much heft in the frontcourt and could be overpowered inside.
Georgetown (24). The Hoyas are on this list in perpetuity until they prove otherwise. Ghastly NCAA tournament flameouts have become the hallmark of the past few years, and this team appears capable of living down to that tradition as well.
Virginia (25). There are warning lights flashing around the Cavaliers. Justin Anderson has a long way to go to get back to top form. They have become uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball in recent games. And the propensity for offensive droughts has not gone away.
Utah (26). Sometimes teams that overachieve most of the season start leaking helium late, and the Utes may be that team. After a 21-4 start, they've lost four of their past seven and struggled with the most athletic teams in the Pac-12.
TEAMS WITH SOMETHING TO PROVE
Five successful programs that have not been able to translate that success into the NCAA tournament (non-Georgetown Division):
Notre Dame (27). The ACC tournament champions come in with high hopes but low productivity in recent years. Last time the Fighting Irish won an NCAA tournament game was 2011. Last time they went to the Sweet 16 was 2003. Last (and only) time they went to the Final Four was 1978.
Gonzaga. The Zags are always in the Dance but rarely in the second weekend, having failed to reach the Sweet 16 since 2009. And as everyone is well aware, they’ve never made the Final Four. Lately they’ve been two and through, losing in the round of 32 five straight seasons – including in 2013 as a No. 1 seed.
Oklahoma (28). The Sooners have been a first-round knockout each of the last two years, including a 5-12 upset loss to North Dakota State last season. Coach Lon Kruger is on a personal five-game NCAA tourney-losing streak dating back to his prior job at UNLV.
Arizona. Final Fours became semi-regular occurrences under Lute Olson – four of them in all, between 1988-2001. There have been none since. The aspiration of the program is to play on the final weekend.
Villanova (29). The Wildcats may have had their postseason breakthrough in New York over the weekend by winning the Big East tournament for the first time in 20 years. But now it needs to carry over the NCAAs, where they have a 2-4 record since making the 2009 Final Four.
COACHES ON THE RISE
Five guys who could be headed for a job upgrade soon:
Archie Miller (30), Dayton. Has a good enough job right now that he can afford to be choosy – but Sean Miller’s little brother will be highly sought after. He’s 51-18 over the last two seasons.
Jerod Haase (31), UAB. Former Roy Williams player and assistant has the Blazers back in the tournament for the first time since 2011 and just the second time since 2006. Haase has done it this time with a very young team that started 4-9 but has gone 15-6 since.
Brad Underwood (32), Stephen F. Austin. Took over a program in great shape but has elevated it even higher. Underwood is 61-7 in two seasons and has lost just one Southland Conference game. If the Lumberjacks win a tournament game again this year, he will be coveted.
Bobby Hurley (33), Buffalo. Made his name as a great player, but he’s now forging a second stellar college career as a coach. In just his second year, Hurley has the Bulls in the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. Buffalo could have a hard time keeping him.
Steve Masiello (34), Manhattan. Yes, he was a hot name last year who actually got another job (South Florida) before it all crashed down because Masiello hadn’t earned a college degree. This time around he’s done an even better coaching job getting the Jaspers into the tourney again.
COACHES WHO KNOW THE WAY
There are eight coaches in the tournament who have cut down the Final Four nets. The list:
Mike Krzyzewski (35), Duke. Titles won: 1991, '92, 2001, 2010. Will have a chance to add to the total this year.
Rick Pitino (36), Louisville. Titles won: 1996 at Kentucky, 2013 at Louisville. Cardinals' streak of three straight 30-win seasons will come to an end without a third national title.
Roy Williams (37), North Carolina. Titles won: 2005, '09. Tar Heels have the talent for a deep run; but do they have the toughness?
John Calipari (38), Kentucky. Title won: 2012. If he doesn't have two titles after this tourney, UK fans will consider the season a disappointment.
Bill Self (39), Kansas. Title won: 2008. He's had as many early exits as deep runs; will this be another disappointing Dance?
Tom Izzo (40), Michigan State. Title won: 2000. Spartans were fantastic in the Big Ten tournament. Will it carry over?
Steve Fisher (41), San Diego State. Title won: 1989 at Michigan. Aztecs have scoring issues that make them a risky pick to do much.
Larry Brown (42), SMU. Title won: 1988 at Kansas. Another stellar coaching job this year by Brown. Nobody will feel very comfortable looking down the sideline and seeing him on the opposing bench.
A STAR IS BORN?
Five players who have had good seasons and now have the chance to break out on the big stage:
Bronson Koenig (43), Wisconsin. Playing time went up when Traevon Jackson got hurt, and he's been dynamite down the stretch. Fearless bordering on cocky, and has been a deadly perimeter shooter in March.
Melo Trimble (44), Maryland. There were a lot of freshmen expected to make an instant impact this season, and Trimble's name wasn't near the top of the list. But after the season he's had, he could be one-and-done. Has been the difference-maker for the Terrapins in their rise from also-ran to NCAA team.
Joseph Young (45), Oregon. Pac-12 Player of the Year can fill it up from deep – he made nine 3s in the Pac-12 tournament, including a buzzer beater to win the Ducks' semifinal game. Good athlete with great stamina who always has the green light in Dana Altman's offense.
Juwan Staten (46), West Virginia. Knee injury kept him out of the Big 12 tournament. Provided he's back and moving at his usual high rate of speed, the dynamic point guard could make the Mountaineers a tough out.
Pat Connaughton (47), Notre Dame. Senior must be a really good pitcher, because that's his sport going forward over basketball – and he's an excellent basketball player. Connaughton can fill it up from the outside, but has diversified his game with an ability to drive to the basket. Tenacious competitor who will battle at the other end as an undersized power forward as well.
Five players who could put a triple-double on the board at some point in the NCAA tourney:
Kris Dunn (48), Providence. Sophomore point guard averages 15.8 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game. March scoring averaged has bumped up to 19 ppg.
D'Angelo Russell (49), Ohio State. Pro-ready lefty freshman is posting 19.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. If you're looking for someone who can go Shabazz Napier on the field, he might be the guy.
Jerian Grant (50), Notre Dame. Averaging 16.8 points, 3 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 1.7 steals per game. Straw boss of the Fighting Irish who will have the ball in his hands constantly at crunch time – driving, posting up, shooting from the perimeter if need be.
Delon Wright (51), Utah. Good for 14.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.1 steals. Utes would be nowhere without him.
Kyle Collinsworth (52), BYU. Already has six triple-doubles this year, tying the NCAA career record held by Shaquille O'Neal. (Where O'Neal specialized in blocked shots, Collinsworth is an assist guy.) Does it all for the Cougars.
Because there’s not much that’s more fun than watching a good shooter on a roll, here are five guys to keep an eye on:
Kyle Wiltjer (53), Gonzaga. He’s a 47 percent 3-point shooter whose range can drag a big man away from the basket and open the lane for his teammates.
Devin Booker (54), Kentucky. Only plays about half a game and comes off the bench, but the freshman is capable of dropping five 3s on an opponent on a given night. Underrated all-around player as well.
Isaiah Cousins (55), Oklahoma. He’s splashed 59 3s on the season, with 45 percent accuracy. Often the recipient of drive-and-kick penetration by his teammates.
Alex Peters (56), Valparaiso. Like Wiltjer, the 6-9 Peters is in the stretch-four mold who can put a lot of stress on a defense. He’s made 79 3s on the year and shoots 46 percent from beyond the arc.
Tyler Kalinoski (57), Davidson. On a team full of shooters, he’s the first guy you have to stop. And it’s not easy. Kalinoski has knocked down 91 3s – 21 of them in Davidson’s last five games.
Willie Cauley-Stein (58), Kentucky
D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera (59), Georgetown
Mo Alie-Cox (60), VCU
Bryce Dejean-Jones (61), Iowa State
Colton Ray-St. Cyr (62), Coastal Carolina
MOST THREATENING MASCOTS
Not everyone is as benign and goofy as the Stanford Tree or the various fur-suited fake animals. Don’t start any funny business with these folks:
Providence Friar (63). Positively haunting. As if the school let Edvard Munch design the head.
Purdue Pete (64). Brawny man with a sledgehammer. And since he hasn’t been in the tournament since 2012, he might have excess testosterone flowing.
Pistol Pete (65). If you ever saw the old “McCloud” show with Dennis Weaver as a cowboy cop, this is his reincarnation as the Oklahoma State mascot. But with a bigger head. Facial features unnervingly life-like.
West Virginia Mountaineer (66). Carries a rifle. Enough said.
San Diego State Aztec (67). A real guy with real muscles and a real scowl. Don’t antagonize.
When hungry in the Final Four mecca of Indianapolis, The Minutes recommends the downtown institution of St. Elmo (68). Shrimp cocktail that will take your sinuses where they’ve never been before. A fantastic steak. Bean soup. Classy, old-school feel. Thank The Minutes later – if you can get in.