Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (sympathy cards for the Evansville Purple Aces sold separately):
DIDN’T TAKE LONG FOR MARCH TO GET MAD
You know it’s March (1) when the crazy stuff starts happening on a daily basis. Among the early developments in conference tournament action: no fewer than five conference champions and top seeds failed to even make the final (North Florida in the Atlantic-Sun, Bucknell in the Patriot, Belmont in the Ohio Valley, High Point in the Big South, Wichita State in the Missouri Valley); and championships have been won by a No. 8 seed (Austin Peay in the OVC) and three No. 4 seeds (Florida Gulf Coast in the A-Sun, UNC-Asheville in the Big South and Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley).
Along the way, we unveiled the first two championship heroes of March:
Zach Johnson (2), whose spectacular block at the rim in the closing seconds not only saved Florida Gulf Coast but the entire Atlantic Sun, because the league was dumb enough to allow a team ineligible for the NCAA tournament to play in the league tournament. Stetson and its low Academic Progress Rate score got in, and nearly got over on everyone, advancing to the final before losing to Dunk City – which is now Block City, thanks to Johnson.
Wes Washpun (3) of Northern Iowa, a transfer from Tennessee, who got the shooter’s bounce at an absolutely vital moment against Evansville on Sunday. Washpun’s jumper thumped off the heel of the rim, went straight up and then straight in after the buzzer to beat Evansville in the Valley title game.
DON’T GIVE UP ON THE FRESHMAN CLASS JUST YET
One of the themes of this unpredictable, parity-laden season has been the lack of impact by the freshman class. That’s what was holding back Kentucky and Duke, specifically, and it allowed veterans to dominate the landscape.
But as is always the case in a sport that provides everyone with a second chance at the end, season-long perceptions are subject to change. Some of the young guns are coming to life, and it could alter the outcome of both the conference tournaments and the Big Dance to follow. The Minutes looks at 10 freshmen who could have a major impact over the next four weeks (none of them named Ben Simmons):
Skal Labissiere (4) and Jamal Murray (5) of Kentucky. Skal was Rivals.com’s No. 1 recruit, and he was a raging disappointment all year – until last week. Now he could be John Calipari’s latest March makeover player. The rail-thin 7-footer averaged 14.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in victories over Florida and LSU, playing off point guard Tyler Ulis as an effective pick-and-pop jump shooter from 15-18 feet. For a team that has been desperate for frontcourt production, Skal’s sudden signs of life greatly enhance Kentucky’s Final Four chances. “He’s beginning to be the best he can be,” Calipari said after the LSU game. “I’m really proud of him, because it’s been hard.”
It’s been nowhere near as hard for Murray, who came out of the womb making shots and has continued to do so at Kentucky. But he’s become more consistent over the last month, taking a streak of 10 straight 20-point scoring games into the postseason. Over the last nine games he’s shooting 54 percent from 3-point range, and he’s getting to the foul line with regularity as well.
Jaylen Brown (6) and Ivan Rabb (7) of California. Cuonzo Martin’s dual recruiting coup took a while to integrate with a solid veteran cast at Cal, but it’s working awfully well now. The Golden Bears have won eight of their last nine games, going from NCAA bubble to NCAA lock in the process, and earning the No. 3 seed for the Pac-12 tournament. Over those nine games, Brown has averaged 14.1 points and 5.5 rebounds, while Rabb is producing 11.4 points and eight rebounds.
Tyler Davis (8) of Texas A&M. The Aggies staggered through the first half of February but have since regained their footing to earn a share of their first SEC title, and the No. 1 seed for the league tourney. Their current six-game winning streak has been powered in part by the play of the 6-foot-10 Davis, who in that span has averaged 13.2 points and 7.7 rebounds while making 62 percent of his shots.
Thomas Bryant (9) of Indiana. Highly touted big man who came in with a great attitude, and it’s working for him. Bryant understood his role on a Yogi Ferrell-led team, took coaching well and has played with a high motor all season. He’s averaged 11 points and nine rebounds over the past three games and was especially important in the Big Ten-clinching win at Iowa (12 points, 10 boards).
Tyler Dorsey (10) of Oregon. Showed how good he could be during the FIBA Under-19 World Championships during the summer, starring for Greece. (His mom is Greek, which came as news to the Greek basketball federation, which had no idea Dorsey existed until a few weeks before the tourney.) The slashing, 6-4 guard backed it up in Eugene, playing especially well lately. In the Ducks’ current five-game winning streak, Dorsey has produced 16 points per game, making 11 of 24 shots from beyond the arc.
Ethan Happ (11) of Wisconsin. The Badgers are one of the few basketball programs that redshirt players, and it routinely works out well. Happ is the latest success story – clearly last year’s loaded team did not have much room for a 6-9 interior player, so he sat out and bulked up and has made an instant impact this season. Happ is Wisconsin’s leading rebounder (7.8 per game) and No. 3 scorer (11.9 per game), and he has an uncanny knack for steals (a team-high 1.8 per game, including six against Illinois in late February).
Edmond Sumner (12) of Xavier. He was a redshirt, too, but not by choice. Knee issues shut down Sumner’s true freshman season last year, but he’s come back with a flourish. He’s skinny but breathtakingly quick, which Villanova found out Feb. 24 – Sumner sliced through the Wildcats for 19 points and nine assists. In two games since then he has scored a total of just five points, but he remains the Musketeers’ third-leading scorer and leader in steals.
Brandon Ingram (13) of Duke. Much was expected of Ingram this season, and he has delivered on those expectations. He’s the Blue Devils’ No. 2 scorer and rebounder – the latter increasingly important since the loss of forward Amile Jefferson to injury for the season. There is a lot riding on his skinny shoulders – at times too much, illustrated by the 10 turnovers at Louisville – and he carries a big share of Duke’s postseason sustainability.
THE LITTLE DANCE, CONT.
The Minutes continues the two-week breakdown of the conference tournaments that will lead us into Selection Sunday and beyond:
Dates: Tuesday-Saturday, in Washington, D.C.
Top Seed: North Carolina. The Tar Heels are only 6-4 in their last 10 games, but an 8-0 start to league play put them in the driver’s seat. Brice Johnson (16.8 points per game, 10.8 rebounds) has had a monster season and keys the Heels’ relentless work on the offensive glass.
Top Challenger: Virginia. The second-seeded Cavaliers have won 11 of their last 13, with the two losses by a combined four points – both on the road, and one aided and abetted by The Uncalled Travel on Duke’s Grayson Allen. Tempo masters play the way they want to play, regardless of opponent.
Live Long Shot: Virginia Tech. The sixth-seeded Hokies are on a five-game winning streak, highlighted by a 15-point beating of Miami on Saturday.
Coach Who Loves This Tourney: Mike Krzyzewski. He’s won it 13 times, although none of those has come in the last four years. Last year’s eventual NCAA tournament champion lost in the ACC semifinals to Notre Dame.
Coach Who Hates It: Roy Williams. He’s said as much in years past. Tar Heels haven’t won the ACC tournament since 2008.
Conference Pomeroy rank: Second of 32.
Minutes Pick: Virginia (15). The Minutes is starting to believe that this is the breakthrough year for the Cavaliers. First they conquer D.C., next Houston?
Dates: Thursday-Sunday, in Orlando.
Top seed: Temple. The best team in the conference most of the year was SMU, but the Mustangs are banned from the postseason – and some late losses opened the door for the Owls to win the regular-season title. But Temple still doesn’t have a fool-proof NCAA résumé, so it had better win some games in Orlando.
Dark horse: Cincinnati. The No. 4 seed draws Connecticut in the quarterfinals and already has beaten the Huskies twice. And the Bearcats got a nice springboard into the postseason by beating SMU on Sunday.
Pomeroy conference rank: Seventh out of 32.
Minutes pick: Cincinnati. Bearcats will guard all day, every day, which means they will be a tough out. If they make enough shots, they’ll cut down the nets.
Dates: Wednesday-Sunday, in Brooklyn.
Top seed: Dayton. The Flyers have hardly been a dominant team down the stretch – they finished 3-3, and their last five victories have come by a total of nine points. (Not a misprint.) On one hand, it’s good to be able to win close games. On the other hand, why is Dayton locked in life-and-death games with a few teams from the bottom half of the league?
Dark horse: St. Bonaventure. Bonnies aren’t really much of a dark horse, having tied for the league title with Dayton and VCU, but they are the No. 3 seed in this tourney. They’ve won five straight and 10 of their last 11.
Pomeroy conference rank: Eighth out of 32.
Minutes pick: Fordham. This is the Minutes’ Shocker Special of Championship Week. The No. 8 seed Rams (17-12) have finished well, winning their last four games, and first-year coach Jeff Neubauer twice got his Eastern Kentucky teams to the Big Dance as underdogs in the conference tourney. Senior forward Ryan Rhoomes is on a tear, averaging 16.8 points and 11.6 rebounds in February and March.
BIG 12 (18)
Dates: Wednesday-Saturday, in Kansas City.
Top Seed: Kansas. What, you were expecting TCU? Jayhawks won the conference for the 1,000th straight time, but this year is some of Bill Self’s best work. Balanced, tough team may lack a superstar but can beat you in a number of ways – and has beaten everyone it has faced since January.
Top Challenger: West Virginia. Speaking of coaches doing great work: Bob Huggins’ team is no masterpiece offensively, but the Mountaineers’ relentless pressure and great depth can overwhelm opponents. In a tourney format with games every day, throwing nine bodies at the opposition can have a big effect.
Live Long Shot: Iowa State. The Cyclones have been a disappointment, sliding all the way down to the sixth seed. But that matches them up with Oklahoma in the quarterfinals, and the Sooners have a habit of early exits from this tourney. Iowa State’s veteran core has won six straight Big 12 tourney games, and a weekend of hot shooting could make it nine straight.
Coach Who Loves This Tourney: The most accurate answer would be Fred Hoiberg, who won the last two, but he’s not around anymore. So the choice is Bill Self, who has won six of the past 10.
Coach Who Hates It: Lon Kruger. His Big 12 tourney record since being at Oklahoma is 1-4. He’s never reached the final, much less won the thing. Bob Huggins isn’t much of a fan, either, going 0-3 since West Virginia joined the league.
Pomeroy Conference Rank: First out of 32.
Minutes Pick: Kansas (19). Hard to go against a team that has been the best in the league, especially given the scattershooting of West Virginia, the struggles at Iowa State and the annual Big 12 tourney futility of Oklahoma.
BIG EAST (20)
Dates: Wednesday-Saturday, in New York.
Top Seed: Villanova. The Wildcats have been a rock of consistent excellence, going 35-4 in Big East play over the past two seasons (including winning last year’s tourney). This year’s team doesn’t shoot it as well as the 2014-15 group, but it defends better. Jay Wright getting deserved consideration for national Coach of the Year honors.
Top Challenger: Xavier. Speaking of Coach of the Year candidates: Chris Mack has his best team in seven seasons at his alma mater, one capable of making the school’s first Final Four. Explosive Musketeers have put 90 or more points on the board seven times this season, including twice in their last three games.
Live Long Shot: Seton Hall. Not a huge long shot as the No. 3 seed. The Pirates are hot, having won nine of their last 11. The only two losses in that span are to Butler, and the Bulldogs are on the other side of the bracket. Seton Hall could get another chance at upsetting Xavier in the semis, having knocked off the Musketeers on Feb. 28.
Coach Who Loves This Tourney: Ed Cooley of Providence is 4-1 over his last two, winning the 2014 tourney as a No. 3 seed.
Coach Who Hates It: John Thompson III is 3-5 in the last five years, and hasn’t made a final since 2010. This has been the annual set-up to the bigger disappointment to come in the NCAAs – though the Hoyas appear to have pre-empted that flop by currently sitting well outside the field of 68.
Pomeroy Conference Rank: Fourth of 32.
Minutes Pick: Xavier (21). If it comes down to a Xavier-Villanova rubber match for the title, we’ll see if the Wildcats can contain Sumner. He’s a tough matchup for a team with decent but not overwhelming perimeter athleticism.
BIG SKY (22)
Dates: Tuesday-Saturday, in Reno.
Top Seed: Weber State. After a one-year hiatus from Big Sky prominence, the Wildcats are back. Their three league losses came by a total of 12 points – although their final six wins all have been by single digits as well.
Dark Horse: Idaho. The third-seeded Vandals have won six of their last seven, including a victory over Weber State last week. But they haven’t been to the NCAA tourney since 1990.
Pomeroy Conference Rank: 28th of 32.
Minutes Pick: Weber State. If the Wildcats continue wearing out a path to the foul line in the tourney, they’ll win it. They’ve shot 240 more free throws than their opponents.
BIG TEN (23)
Dates: Wednesday-Sunday, in Indianapolis.
Top Seed: Indiana. What a season the Hoosiers have had. Tom Crean withstood harsh criticism before the season, and early in the season. Then he lost his leading scorer, James Blackmon, to a knee injury after 13 games. Yet the Hoosiers thrived amid high pressure, winning the Big Ten outright for the second time in the last four seasons. This has been Crean’s best work at Indiana.
Top Challenger: Michigan State. The Spartans have every tool of a national title contender. They shoot it far better than their opponents (an 11 percent accuracy differential), bludgeon opponents on the glass (plus-12 rebounding margin), have a star in Denzel Valentine, a capable sidekick in Bryn Forbes and a solid cast of role players. Oh, and Tom Izzo.
Live Long Shot: Ohio State. Seventh-seeded Buckeyes won five of their last seven to put themselves on the bubble for the Big Dance. They’re playing well and motivated, and their coach has a history of success in this event (see below).
Coach Who Loves This Tourney: Thad Matta has won four of the last nine and been runner-up twice. Only once in 11 seasons has Matta failed to win at least one game in the Big Ten tourney.
Coach Who Hates It: Tom Crean has never made the final in seven seasons at Indiana. Overall record in this event: 3-7.
Pomeroy Conference Rank: Fifth of 32.
Minutes Pick: Michigan State (24). Not every great Spartans team has done well in the Big Ten tourney, but The Minutes expects this one to do so. Michigan State has played in the final three of the past four years and won two of those. Time to add another piece of hardware to the Izzo pile.
BIG WEST (25)
Dates: Thursday-Saturday, in Anaheim.
Top Seed: Hawaii. Warriors have had a great season, but lost two of their last four games to fall into a tie for the league title. Any hopes of an at-large bid that may have flickered when Hawaii was 22-3 are gone now at 24-5. Like everyone else in the league, the Warriors have to win it all to play in the NCAAs.
Dark Horse: UC-Santa Barbara. Gauchos have won eight straight, six of them by double digits, to come roaring into the tourney.
Pomeroy Conference Rank: 15th of 32.
Minutes Pick: UC-Irvine. When in doubt, go with the team that has the 7-foot-6, 300-pound center. Mamadou Ndiaye led the Anteaters to the tournament last year – and nearly to a first-round upset of Louisville – and he can do it again.
CONFERENCE USA (26)
Dates: Wednesday-Saturday, in Birmingham.
Top Seed: UAB. The Blazers coalesced late last season, rolling to the C-USA title and into the NCAA round of 32 after an upset of Iowa State. They’ve pretty much picked up where they left off, going 26-5 and 16-2. Along the way they have won their last eight games decided by five points or less.
Dark Horse: Western Kentucky. The No. 8 seed Hilltoppers have won four of their last five, with the lone loss by four points at UAB. And coach Ray Harper has done some wacky stuff in conference tourneys, twice winning the Sun Belt as a long shot. He’s 9-2 in league tournaments since coming to WKU.
Pomeroy Conference Rank: 21st of 32.
Minutes Pick: UAB. The Blazers won the league by three games and have the tourney in their backyard. It would be a shock to see anyone else win it.
Dates: Monday-Saturday, in Norfolk, Va.
Top Seed: Hampton. The Pirates have been very good with double-double man Quinton Chievous in the lineup, but not as good without him while he’s dealt with some lingering ankle issues. Chievous sat out the regular-season finale against Norfolk State and the Pirates lost by 20. If the senior Tennessee transfer is back and healthy, Hampton will be tough to beat.
Dark Horse: Norfolk State. The No. 2 seed has the tournament in its hometown, and just had the aforementioned 20-point win over top seed Hampton last week.
Pomeroy Conference Rank: 32nd out of 32.
Minutes Pick: Hampton. The Pirates eliminated Norfolk State on the way to the MEAC title last year, and they’ll do it again this time around. If Chievous can give them his usual quality play.
Dates: Monday-Saturday, at campus sites and then Cleveland.
Top Seed: Akron. Zips have had 11 straight 20-win seasons under Keith Dambrot, but only have three NCAA bids to show for them – the last one in 2013. This team shoots the 3 extremely well and defends it extremely well, a nice combination.
Dark Horse: Northern Illinois. The seventh-seeded Huskies are 17-1 at home, and they beat Western Michigan there Monday to reach 18-1. This NIU team advances to face Ohio, which it split with during the regular season.
Pomeroy Conference Rank: 13th of 32.
Minutes Pick: Akron. Best offensive team in the league, and one of the better defensive teams. Zips are the class of the MAC.
MOUNTAIN WEST (29)
Dates: Wednesday-Saturday, in Las Vegas.
Top Seed: San Diego State. The methodical Aztecs are (again) an ugly offensive team that can suffocate almost anyone defensively. The last time they allowed an opponent 70 or more points in regulation was before Christmas – and the opponent was No. 1 Kansas.
Dark Horse: Fresno State. The athletic, second-seeded Bulldogs are on a six-game winning streak, and split with conference kingpin San Diego State in a pair of nailbiters. Their last NCAA tourney appearance was 2001, when they were coached by Jerry Tarkanian.
Pomeroy Conference Rank: 10th of 32.
Minutes Pick: San Diego State. That would assuredly make this a one-bid league, which might be the case even if the Aztecs are upset. Mountain West basketball has seen better days.
Dates: Wednesday-Saturday, in Las Vegas.
Top Seed: Oregon. An unremarkable non-conference season (losses to UNLV and Boise State counterbalanced wins over Baylor and Valparaiso) was followed by an opening Pac-12 loss to rival Oregon State. But since then, the Ducks have been spectacular. They’ve won 14 of their last 17, including road sweeps in Arizona and Los Angeles, to win the conference title. Dana Altman is the unquestioned Coach of the Year in the league.
Top Challenger: Utah. The Utes have won their last seven and 12 of their last 14, as 7-footer Jakob Poeltl has established his All-American credentials. The one thing Utah has not been able to do in recent years is beat Oregon – the losing streak to the Ducks stands at six.
Live Long Shot: Arizona. Funny to even refer to the established power in the league as a long shot, but by seeding that’s where the No. 4 Wildcats would fall. Their only losses since January were a pair of close road games against Colorado and Utah, and they have all the parts to win this tourney and make noise in the next.
Coach Who Loves This Tourney: Sean Miller. Arizona has made the tourney final four of the last five years and won it last year in dominant fashion. Overall record in the event is 10-5.
Coach Who Hates It: Ernie Kent is 1-4 in his last four appearances, one with current team Washington State and three at Oregon. His last three losses have come by 25, 16 and 22 points.
Pomeroy Conference Rank: Third of 32.
Minutes Pick: Arizona (31). Oregon might be a slightly better team offensively. California might be a slightly better team defensively. Arizona is the most complete team, and probably has the best coach.
Dates: Wednesday-Sunday, in Nashville.
Top Seed: Texas A&M. Aggies have had a great season, their best since the Billy Gillispie/Mark Turgeon glory years from 2006-11. It has come at an opportune time for fifth-year coach Billy Kennedy, who has locked up his first NCAA bid as A&M coach.
Top Challenger: Kentucky. As noted above, with Labissiere’s development the pieces appear to be coming together right on time. Even if Skal cannot maintain his recent production, the Wildcats still have the best backcourt in the league by far, and one of the very best in the nation.
Live Long Shot: Georgia. The sixth-seeded Bulldogs are on a three-game winning streak – their longest of the year in SEC play. If they get past Mississippi State on Thursday to reach the quarterfinals, they’d draw a South Carolina team they’ve already beaten twice.
Coach Who Loves This Tourney: John Calipari is 13-3 in this event, with three titles and two runner-up finishes in six seasons.
Coach Who Hates It: Billy Kennedy, Texas A&M. He’s 1-3, with two consecutive first-game knockouts. If the Aggies lose their first game this time, it will really be bad.
Pomeroy Conference Rank: Sixth of 32.
Minutes Pick: Kentucky (33). Team with the best talent and most proven coach gets three virtual home games in Music City. Like most years, it would be a shock if the Wildcats don’t win this thing.
Dates: Wednesday-Saturday, in Katy, Texas.
Top Seed: Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks went 18-0 in the league and are 53-1 over the past three seasons. They’ve also won the last two tourneys.
Dark Horse: Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. The Islanders are the only Southland team to beat SFA in the past three seasons, and are the closest thing to a competitor in this overmatched league.
Pomeroy Conference Rank: 29th of 32.
Minutes Pick: Stephen F. Austin. Ya think?
SUN BELT (35)
Dates: Thursday-Sunday, in New Orleans.
Top Seed: Arkansas-Little Rock. Chris Beard’s first season as a Division I head coach has been nothing short of sensational: the Trojans are 27-4, won the league by two games and with road wins over Tulsa and San Diego State would at least deserve a look at an at-large bid if they don’t win this tourney.
Dark Horse: UT-Arlington. Mavericks have won eight of their last 10 games, although they were 0-4 against the top two teams in the league, UALR and Louisiana-Monroe.
Pomeroy Conference Rank: 17th of 32.
Minutes Pick: UALR. The Trojans have made just four NCAA appearances in their history and won just one game, over Notre Dame in 1986 in a major upset. If UALR gets into this Dance, it will be a very dangerous first-round opponent.
Dates: Tuesday-Saturday, in Houston.
Top Seed: Texas Southern. The Tigers have dominated the league under Mike Davis (yes, that Mike Davis). They’ve gone 60-12 and will be the heavy favorites to earn a third straight NCAA bid.
Dark Horse: Prairie View A&M. Yeah, the Panthers are 7-23 – but they’re 6-3 over their last nine games, including an upset of Texas Southern. If sixth-seeded Prairie View somehow wins this thing, it might be the worst team in NCAA tournament history.
Pomeroy Conference Rank: 31st of 32.
Minutes Pick: Texas Southern. Senior-laden team is accustomed to having its way with the SWAC, and will do so again this week in Houston.
WESTERN ATHLETIC (37)
Dates: Thursday-Saturday, in Las Vegas.
Top Seed: New Mexico State. There is considerable space between the Aggies and the rest of the league. Forward Pascal Siakam is the dominant player in the conference, leading a team that lost just one conference game – and that was Jan. 9, to a team that isn’t in this tourney.
Dark Horse: Cal State-Bakersfield. With Grand Canyon not eligible for the tournament, the Roadrunners might be New Mexico State’s only legitimate competition. The senior tandem of Aly Ahmed and Kevin Mays – one from Egypt, one from Queens – gives them a potent one-two punch.
Pomeroy Conference Rank: 26th of 32.
Minutes Pick: New Mexico State. Aggies have won 11 straight WAC tourney games, resulting in four straight NCAA bids. This will make it five straight.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Dave Loos (38), Austin Peay. At age 69, Loos punched his fourth ticket to the Dance with a string of stunning upsets in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament. First the Governors took down a Tennessee Tech team that had beaten them at home during the regular season. They then knocked off Tennessee State, which had beaten them by 14 previously. Then they shocked top seed Belmont, which had beaten them by 18. Finally, they earned the autobid by beating a Tennessee-Martin team that had swept the regular-season meetings. All Told, Austin Peay went 4-0 against teams it was 0-5 against prior to the tournament. That’s pretty amazing.
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
Nathan Davis (39), Bucknell. His Bison played Holy Cross twice in the regular season. They won the first one by 27. They won the second one by 25. Then they meet the Crusaders in the quarterfinals of the Patriot League tournament and lose in double overtime. Ouch. Tough one for a guy in his first year at Bucknell after six great seasons at Division III Randolph-Macon.
When hungry/thirsty and in need of basketball viewing in The Minutes’ home base of Louisville, drop in on the Brick House Tavern (40) for some meatballs, some wings and an Indiana-brewed Upland Dragonfly IPA. With the postseason upon us and Louisville not playing, there may be more open tables than usual at a place that does great March business. Thank The Minutes later.