Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball – super-sized to 68 for the NCAA tournament Big Dance Edition:
The field is set, and the wild rumpus is about to begin. For three weeks, we’re all residents of Bracketville. Enjoy.
It’s been a big year for birds (1). The NCAA field includes four Eagles (Marquette, Winthrop, Florida Gulf Coast and North Carolina Central), two Gamecocks (South Carolina and Jacksonville State), some Ducks (Oregon), Cardinals (Louisville), Bluejays (Creighton), Seahawks (UNC-Wilmington), Fighting Hawks (North Dakota), a turkey (Virginia Tech Hokies) and the usual imaginary bird (Kansas Jayhawks).
It’s been a great run for the Dakotas (2): South Dakota State, North Dakota and Purdue sharpshooter Dakota Mathias are all dancing.
And fittingly for an event that always overlaps with St. Patrick’s Day, the tournament is chock full of Irishmen (3): The Iona Gaels, Saint Mary’s Gaels and Notre Dame Fighting Irish all are in the bracket.
But here’s what the 2017 NCAA tournament has that’s really intriguing: the possibility of a sequel to a classic. Last year’s championship game between Villanova and North Carolina is arguably the greatest ever played. It was a taut battle that twisted and turned on one remarkable shot after another in the final possessions. When Marcus Paige made his splay-legged three-pointer to tie the game, it was an unforgettable moment – and then it was one-upped 4.7 seconds of game time later by Kris Jenkins’ three to win it all.
Nearly a year later, we have this scenario: Villanova and North Carolina could stage another classic, and the winner once again could end up being the national champion. In fact, the potential for classic Part II outcomes in this year’s tournament is endless. The Minutes explores a few:
The Godfather Part II. Villanova coach Jay Wright (4) earned a place in hoops gangster lore last April with his stoic, one-syllable response to Jenkins’ title-winning shot: “Bang.” That was all Wright said, a reaction so cool and collected amid tension-laced hysteria that it was almost inhuman. Now Wright’s Wildcats (31-3) are armed with a No. 1 seed and strongly positioned among The Minutes’ group of seven prime contenders to win it all. The Michael Corleone of college basketball could do it again.
Star Wars II: The Empire Strikes Back. That would be the defeated blueblood, North Carolina (5). For more than 11 months, the Tar Heels (27-7) have lived with the crushing loss that deprived the program of its sixth national title. “We remember what we went through,” guard Theo Pinson said. “During player introductions [at the ACC tournament last week], they showed Marcus’ shot, but we know what came after. That just fuels us every time we step on the court – we didn’t win it last year.” They might this year. The Heels also are among The Minutes’ group of seven title contenders.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kansas. Bill Self (6) and the Jayhawks (28-4) are back among the favorites to win it all after losing to Villanova in the South Region final last year. That was the original crusher delivered by the Wildcats, taking out a team that was the overall No. 1 seed heading into the ’16 tournament. This Kansas team has an incredible will to win that has helped it pull out a lot of narrow victories – but the Jayhawks also have been far from dominant, possess a short bench and have spent the past couple of months under the microscope for off-court issues.
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. UCLA (7) has won the most national titles of any program with 11, but it’s been 22 years since the last one. Now, flush with NBA talent, the Bruins (29-4) have the most offensive firepower in the tournament – but they’ll go only as far as their indifferent defense will take them.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That would be everyone’s favorite redhead, Mark Few (8). He leads Gonzaga (32-1) into its 19th straight NCAA tournament, and this might be the best one of them all. Can Few get the Zags where they’ve never been before – the Final Four? This could be the year.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Duke (9) and Kentucky (10) started the season ranked 1-2 but wandered through the underachiever wilderness for weeks at a time. Now, at just the right time, the two most talented teams in the field are rolling. The Blue Devils (27-8) just plowed through Louisville, North Carolina and Notre Dame in successive days to win the ACC tournament. The Wildcats (29-5) steamrolled through the Southeastern Conference tournament and bring an 11-game winning streak into the NCAAs.
Cinderella 2: Dreams Do Come True. A year after shocking Michigan State in the opening round as a No. 15 seed, Giddy Potts and Middle Tennessee (11) are back and perhaps more dangerous than ever. The Blue Raiders (30-4) will have a better seed this time around, and could make a charge to their first Sweet Sixteen.
Peter Pan 2: Return To Neverland. New Orleans (12) makes its first tourney appearance since 1996, and a lot of people thought this program would never again see such a day. Hurricane Katrina nearly closed the school and nearly ended the athletic program, and in 2010 UNO actually announced a move down to Division III. That decision ultimately was reversed, and after a year as an independent UNO caught on with the Southland Conference – and now the Privateers are its champion.
Indiana Jones And The Tempo of Doom. If you’re looking for racehorse basketball in the latter stages of the tournament, it might be hard to find. Nine teams seeded in the top 32 rank among the 30 most deliberate in the nation, according to Ken Pomeroy’s statistics: Villanova, Baylor, SMU, Cincinnati, Virginia, Saint Mary’s, Wisconsin, Michigan and Miami. That’s triple the number from 2016. The slowest of all: Virginia (13), which brings a 22-10 record into the tournament, and a 33-year streak without a Final Four appearance.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Florida Gulf Coast (14) has won 10 straight road games and hasn’t lost on the road since a one-point defeat at Michigan State on Nov. 20. There are no home games in the Big Dance, and a lot of people like the tough-minded Eagles’ chance to rekindle the magic of their 2013 Sweet Sixteen run.
OTHER MARCH MADNESS STORYLINES
How big of an impact can a hyped freshman class make before departing for the NBA? Nine freshmen on highly seeded teams will be key:
Jayson Tatum (15), Frank Jackson (16) and Harry Giles (16) of Duke all flourished in the ACC tourney run: Tatum averaged 22 points and 7.5 rebounds, and Giles broke out of his shell as he continues to put knee injuries behind him. Malik Monk (17), De’Aaron Fox (18) and Bam Adebayo (19) have powered Kentucky: Monk has had nine games with five or more three-pointers; Fox has averaged 22.3 points per game in March; and Adebayo has played 31 or more minutes nine straight games. Lonzo Ball (20) of UCLA could be the second coming of Jason Kidd. Lauri Markkanen (21) of Arizona has shot up draft boards. And Josh Jackson (22) of Kansas has an intriguing combination of athleticism, versatility and competitiveness.
Is freshman talent better than senior experience? Despite the impact of the one-and-done era, only two teams have won the national title with freshmen leading the way: Kentucky 2012 and Duke ’15. With that in mind, keep an eye on the old guys. Frank Mason (23) of Kansas, Josh Hart (24) of Villanova, Kennedy Meeks (25) of North Carolina, Przemek Karnowski (26) of Gonzaga and Wisconsin’s quartet of senior starters (27) will try to make the young guns respect their elders.
Is the West Coast (28) the best coast? The last champion from west of Lawrence, Kansas, was Arizona in 1997. Twenty years is a long time for an entire geographic region to go without an NCAA title. But there’s more – nobody from the West has even advanced to the Final Four since UCLA in 2008. Clearly, the left-hand side of the nation is overdue to produce. Now, between Gonzaga and the Pac-12 power trio of Arizona, Oregon and UCLA, the West has the opportunity for a resurgence.
How strong will the ACC (29) be? With the most teams in the field and five of them prominently seeded, the league is positioned for a potential takeover of the Sweet 16 and beyond. Between Duke and North Carolina, one of the two is more likely than not to make the Final Four over the last 13 years (seven appearances, four by Carolina and three by Duke). If Louisville gets star power from Donovan Mitchell and makes free throws, the Cardinals could make the Final Four. Same for Notre Dame, if the Irish can guard sufficiently.
Does the Big Ten (30) bring anything to the Big Dance? Wisconsin’s tourney revival and the remarkable run by Michigan give this beleaguered league some hope. And you never want to count out Tom Izzo and Michigan State. But seeding shows that the selection committee was unimpressed with the conference, and with good reason.
Can a fresh Final Four coach win it all? Since 1999, only two coaches have won the national title on their first trip to the Final Four: Bill Self in 2008 and Kevin Ollie in 2014. Otherwise, it’s become a rite of passage to make the Final Four and lose, then come back wiser and better to win later. The leading candidates to be both Final Four rookies and national champion: Mark Few, Sean Miller (31) of Arizona, Dana Altman (32) of Oregon, Scott Drew (33) of Baylor and Mike Brey (34) of Notre Dame.
STAT PROFILE OF A NATIONAL CHAMPION
Looking back at 15 years of Ken Pomeroy analytic rankings to identify trends that may help you in your office pool:
Ten out of 15 champions in the Pomeroy Era ranked in the top 20 in both offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency heading into the NCAA tournament. (Note, Pomeroy’s pre-tourney rankings are very different from the end-of-season rankings.) Fourteen out of 15 ranked in the top 20 in at least one of the two. The exception: 2011 Connecticut, which was 22nd in offensive efficiency and 25th defensively. The Huskies then caught fire as a No. 7 seed and won one of the strangest tournaments in history.
The 2017 teams that are in the top 20 in both: Gonzaga, Villanova, Kentucky and Wichita State (35). And beware the Shockers, who are riding a 15-game winning streak. Gregg Marshall is 9-4 the last four NCAA tournaments.
Four times the eventual champion ranked in the top 10 in both offense and defense: North Carolina 2005, Kansas ’08, Duke ’10 and Kentucky ’12. Only one team currently is in the top 10 in both: Gonzaga, which is 10th offensively and second defensively.
Of course, it’s also worth noting this: 13 teams that were in the top 10 in both offense and defense during the Pomeroy Era didn’t even make the Final Four. That includes Kansas and Virginia last year.
Offense has slightly outweighed defense for the last 15 champions. Average Pomeroy ranking of the champ offensively: 11th. Average defensive ranking: 15th. The No. 11 offensive team heading into Sunday’s games was SMU (36). The No. 15 defensive team was Kentucky.
STAT PROFILE OF A FINAL FOUR TEAM
Odds are very slim that a truly poor offensive or defensive team will make the Final Four. In the Pomeroy Era, just two of 60 Final Four teams entered the tourney ranked lower than 76th in either: 2012 Louisville (37) was 126th offensively, but No. 2 defensively and led by one of the greatest tournament coaches in NCAA history; 2011 Virginia Commonwealth (38) was 138th defensively and became one of the great Cinderella teams in NCAA history.
Prominent teams lower than 76th in this year’s field: UCLA (No. 78 defense); Oklahoma State (No. 130 defense); Minnesota (No. 81 offense).
Fifty out of 60 in the Pomeroy Era ranked better than 50th in both offense and defense. Prominent teams outside the top 50 defensively: Michigan (74th), Notre Dame (58th). Prominent teams outside the top 50 offensively: Miami (67th), Northwestern (58th).
POTENTIAL GIANT KILLERS
Four bracket busters to keep an eye on (in addition to Middle Tennessee State, which is mentioned above):
UNC-Wilmington (39). The Seahawks (29-5) play fast but don’t turn the ball over and take good shots, befitting a veteran team. They had a great regular season, winning the Colonial Athletic Association, and followed that up with an authoritative CAA tourney run. And they got NCAA experience last year, leading Duke early in the second half before losing by eight. Coach Kevin Keatts is a rising star in the business who will be ticketed for a bigger job very soon.
East Tennessee State (40). The Southern Conference is decidedly mid-major, but there is a fair amount of high-major talent that has transferred from other Division I schools or junior colleges to play for Steve Forbes. Guard T.J. Cromer is a 40-50-80 guy – 40 percent from 3-point range, 50 percent from 2-point range and 80 percent from the foul line. The Buccaneers (27-7) are tenacious defensively and force a lot of turnovers, but also are sloppy with the ball and commit a lot of fouls.
Princeton (41). This is a team that has forgotten what it feels like to lose. The Tigers (23-6) have won 18 straight, dating to before Christmas, and survived the first conference tournament in Ivy League history. The Ivy champion has done some damage recently in the Big Dance: four of the past six years, the league representative has won at least one game, and in the other two years Harvard lost to North Carolina by two and Princeton lost to Kentucky by two. Princeton is the first undefeated Ivy champ since 2008.
South Dakota State (42). The Jackrabbits aren’t very good: they’re 18-16 and can’t guard a lamp post. But they have a player with a puncher’s chance to put his team on his back and do something epic – his name is Mike Daum, a 6-foot-9, 245-pound blend of brute strength and feathery shooting touch. Daum averages 25 points and eight rebounds while shooting 42 percent from three-point range.
ON UPSET ALERT
Four teams that may not be around for long:
Purdue (43). Matt Painter hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2011. (His Big Ten tourney record since then isn’t too spiffy either, at 3-5.) If Caleb Swanigan goes into takeover mode, the Boilermakers could win some games. But The Minutes will remain a doubter until proven otherwise.
Butler (44). The Bulldogs overachieved this season in going 23-8, with pre-Christmas triumphs over Arizona, Cincinnati, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Bucknell and Vermont. But this is also a team that finished with consecutive losses to Seton Hall and Xavier, and may not have the size to last in this tournament.
Florida (45). The Gators have lost three of their last four games and haven’t looked the same since center John Egbunu was lost for the season with a knee injury and super sub Canyon Barry hurt an ankle. Senior guard Kasey Hill is the only guy on the team with NCAA tourney experience – head coach included.
Maryland (46). The Terrapins have lost four of their last six and are dying for someone other than guard Melo Trimble to make some big plays. Maybe he’s enough to get the Terps through a round or two, but if he keeps missing from the outside (5 of 29 beyond the arc last five games) that seems unlikely.
Welcome to the Big Dance to the following teams. You’ll see how much fun you’ve been missing:
Northwestern (47) is the big news here, finally showing up after 77 years of futility. And the Wildcats won enough – 23 times, to be exact – that there was no Selection Sunday tension to endure. They were comfortably in, to the delight of every bandwagon-hopping media alumnus. Now we’ll see how long they stay.
Jacksonville State (48) is not in Jacksonville, Fla. It’s in Alabama, and it has been a Division I program since 1995-96. The school finally punched its ticket to the tourney by hiring certified March warlock Ray Harper, who previously had scored two huge Sun Belt Conference tournament title upsets while at Western Kentucky. Harper did it again in his first year at Jax State, taking a team seeded fourth all the way in the Ohio Valley Conference tourney. Harper now is 14-3 in Division I conference tourneys.
North Dakota (49). The Fighting Hawks (no longer the Sioux, to the great dismay of some of their fans) are in their eighth year in Division I. Former Steve Alford assistant Brian Jones has been the coach throughout that time, and until this season had never won 20 games. Now he’s won 22, the last one a thrilling, desperate comeback victory over Weber State to make the dance.
UC Davis (50) arrived in Division I in 2004-05 and proceeded to have 10 straight losing seasons. Jim Les, who took Bradley to its last NCAA tournament victory in 2006, finally turned the corner in 2015, and then Saturday the Aggies busted into the dance by taking down Big West regular-season champion UC Irvine, 50-47.
Northern Kentucky (51) is the anti-Northwestern, crashing the dance in its first year eligible. In their second season under former Alabama assistant John Brannen, the Norse have vaulted from 21 losses last year to 24 wins this year, and should have almost everyone back for 2017-18.
Indiana is notably absent from the field of 68, but some of its castoffs are still around and will be competing this week:
Hanner Mosquera-Perea (52) is a starting forward for East Tennessee State, averaging 8.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. Perea was dismissed at IU in May 2015.
Peter Jurkin (53) is a little-used backup center at ETSU. Prior to that he was a little-used center at Indiana from 2012-14.
Luke Fischer (54) transferred out of Indiana after one semester, citing homesickness. The Wisconsin native moved to Marquette, where he’s now a senior and the Eagles’ fourth-leading scorer (11 points per game) and leading rebounder (5.9).
Mike Davis (55) is taking Texas Southern to the NCAA tourney for the third time, 11 years after he left Indiana. Davis has taken seven teams to the tourney: three at Indiana, one at UAB and now three in five seasons at Texas Southern.
NEXT OF KIN
Family ties are everywhere this tournament. The most notable:
Rick and Richard Pitino (56) . For the first time in tournament history, a father and son both will be the head coaches of different teams. Rick’s Louisville Cardinals are 24-8 and dangerous, but haven’t won a game away from home since Feb. 13. Richard is the Big Ten Coach of the Year after leading Minnesota to its first bid since 2013 and its highest seed of the 21st century.
Steve and Bryce Alford (57) . Steve is the head coach at UCLA, and this is the 30th anniversary of him being named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player after leading Indiana to the national title. His son is the Bruins’ second-leading scorer at 15.8 points per game.
Scott and Bryce Drew (58) . The Brothers Drew followed their father, Homer, into the coaching business, and have done pretty well. Scott is the head coach at Baylor, with Bears making their fourth straight NCAA appearance. Bryce is leading Vanderbilt into the tourney in his first year at that school.
Sean and Archie Miller (59). Big brother Sean has guided Arizona to five straight NCAA bids. Archie has taken Dayton to four straight. Sooner or later, they’re both going to the Final Four.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Charlie Hall (60) . Mom is the great comedic actress. Son is a sophomore walk-on at Northwestern who has played 20 minutes in two seasons and is yet to score a college point.
Bill and Luke Murray (61) . Bill is Carl Spackler in “Caddyshack,” John Winger in “Stripes” and Peter Venkman in “Ghostbusters.” Luke is an assistant coach at Xavier.
David and Justin Robinson (62) . David is the Hall of Famer with NBA championship rings, and Justin keeps his warmups on while cheering on his teammates at Duke. The Admiral will get quite animated at games, often in outraged reaction at officiating calls.
Five things that may get on your nerves this tournament:
Grayson Allen (63) . Let’s hope the bad boy of college basketball is on his best behavior, with a minimum of flailing arms and legs, and the Duke guard just plays. He’s very good without the controversy.
LaVar Ball (64). The father of UCLA star Lonzo Ball has made a spectacle of himself this season, issuing more outrageous comments in one season than a parent should in 10. You’ll undoubtedly find Ball in Bruins parent seating during the tournament wearing his “Big Baller” clothing line – not UCLA gear. Because he’s there less to support the team than promote his kid.
Virginia’s hair (65). From London Perrantes’ stove-pipe-hat pileup to Kyle Guy’s man bun, the Cavaliers could use a new team barber.
Endless endgame situations (66) . There will be replay reviews, as officials become increasingly more tentative knowing they have the monitor to bail them out. There will be clock malfunctions, for mystifying reasons. There will be timeout after timeout after timeout. There will be foul after foul after foul. Coaches will milk every dead ball for a few extra seconds to shout instructions. Great games will come to screeching halts. It’s the least enjoyable part of the most enjoyable three weeks.
The singing Gatorade protein bar commercial (67) . Spare us, please, the ludicrous proposition of teams breaking into song while eating.
When hungry in the Final Four city of Phoenix, keep it really real and hit the old-school TeePee Mexican Food (68). Get the fajitas, order a margarita, enjoy the utterly unvarnished atmosphere and thank The Minutes later.
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• NASCAR star Kyle Busch attacks ex-teammate after collision
• Pat Forde: Everything you need to know about the NCAA tourney