Commentary

For all the Cinderella dreamers, the tournament starts now

Originally Published: March 3, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (anti-anxiety pills sold separately in State College, College Park, College Station and other bubblicious college towns nationwide):

[+] EnlargeChristian Laettner
AP Photo/Carol FrancavillaIs this what Rick Pitino sees in his nightmares?

Just because half the country is buried in snow, it doesn't change the calendar. And the calendar says we have made it to the best month of the year. Lock arms, bump chests and dance, college hoops fans, your time has come.

Time to see whether anyone can come close to approximating the big-shot aplomb of Christian Laettner, who recently filmed a VitaminWater commercial with the coach he tormented in 1992, Rick Pitino (1). Look for it this month.

Or whether anyone can be this year's Stephen Curry. Leading candidate: Stephen Curry (2).

Or this year's Georgia. Keep an eye on Auburn (3), a hot team on the wrong side of the bubble, preparing for the same underwhelming conference tournament the Bulldogs shockingly won last year.

The answers are on the way.

Momentary March Sadness

But before moving on to the joy of March, The Minutes will lower a sweat sock to half mast in honor of Marquette guard Dominic James (4), who will sit out the postseason with a broken foot. He has been a solid-gold collegian for four years and Bracketville will be a little less lively locale without him.

The Tournament Starts Now

Tuesday night, the fun begins. At 7 p.m. ET, the quarterfinals commence in the Big South Conference and the Horizon League tournaments. At 7:30, the Ohio Valley Conference follows suit.

As of that moment, The Minutes counts 308 Division I teams harboring hopes of an NCAA tournament berth. A handful still will be competing to squeeze into the 299 conference tournament slots, since some leagues don't have an all-comers tourney. (Boo to them. And hooray to the Big East for getting it right this year.) A few more teams will be tussling for the Ivy League title.

So for everyone who starts whining at this time of year that college basketball ought to expand its tournament from 65 to 68 or 96 or 1.6 million teams, The Minutes has a simple and succinct answer:

You're already in. You just don't realize it.

Just about everyone has a chance to use the Little Dance as a vehicle for reaching the Big Dance. You have the opportunity to win your way in through your league tourney.

So just because Southern (5) is 8-20 and Stetson (6) is 13-16 and San Francisco (7) is 11-18, it doesn't mean they can't dare to dream -- of a conference title, a first-round NCAA upset ... what the heck, a bring-your-uniforms trip to Ford Field. Aspirations should be unlimited.

From Idaho (8) to Iowa (9) to Iona (10), it's second-chance time. Shock-the-world visions should dance in every head. It's what makes March the best month in sports.

Little Dance

With that in mind, The Minutes offers quickie scouting reports on Small Ball -- the 14 mid-major and low-major conference tournaments that begin this week. Pay attention, because somewhere in here could be the Cinderella squad that helps you win your office pool:

America East (11), March 6-14, Albany, N.Y., and campus site for the final.

The favorite: Regular-season champion Binghamton, which has won eight straight to close the regular season. The New York Times recently shined some light on the school's move to Division I basketball and the news wasn't all pretty -- Binghamton has had a disproportionate amount of off-court problems during its ascension to contender status.

The spoiler: Boston U. The third-seeded Terriers walloped Binghamton by 17 in the Bearcats' gym and lost to them by only a point at home. Problem is that BU probably will have to beat Vermont, and the Catamounts pounded the Terriers twice.

Minutes pick: Binghamton. Easier draw and potential home-court advantage for the final too much to overcome.

Adnan Hodzic
AJ Mast/Icon SMILipscomb is led by leading scorer Adnan Hodzic.

Atlantic Sun (12), March 4-7, at Nashville.

The favorite: Jacksonville won the regular-season title and has a bye into the semifinals.

The spoiler: Fourth-seeded Lipscomb has won eight straight games, including victories over all three teams seeded ahead of it, improving its RPI 84 spots in the process. Along with Belmont, Lipscomb should have hometown fan backing.

Minutes pick: Lipscomb.

Big Sky (13), March 7-11, at campus sites and then Ogden, Utah, for semis and final.

The favorite: Weber State, which won the league, has won 11 straight and will play at home.

The spoiler: No. 4 seed Idaho State, which has won five of its past six, including an upset of No. 2 Portland State.

Minutes pick: Weber State.

Big South (14), March 3-7, at campus sites and then Radford, Va., for semifinals and final.

The favorite: Radford, league champion and tournament host.

The spoiler: VMI, which wobbled late but can score a jillion points and beat Radford on the road by 15.

Minutes pick: Radford over VMI in an entertaining final.

[+] EnlargeEric Maynor
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesEric Maynor is still at VCU, leading the Rams in scoring and assists.

Colonial (15), March 6-9, Richmond, Va.

The favorite: Virginia Commonwealth, which won the regular-season title and does not have to travel.

The spoiler: Watch out for both Old Dominion and George Mason. ODU has won nine of its past 10, while Mason has made the final the past two seasons -- and the Final Four the season before that.

Minutes pick: George Mason, which is in the opposite side of the bracket from both VCU and ODU.

Horizon (16), March 3-10, at campus sites and then Indianapolis for quarterfinals, semis and final.

The favorite: Butler. Again.

The spoiler: Green Bay. The Phoenix split with Butler during the season and join the Bulldogs in enjoying a bye into the semifinals.

Minutes pick: Butler. Again.

Metro Atlantic Athletic (17), March 6-9, Albany, N.Y.

The favorite: Siena. The Saints went to the NCAAs last year and won a game, and they dominated the league this season at 16-2.

The spoiler: Niagara. The Purple Eagles have won 10 of their past 11, including an upset of Siena 100-85 last week -- the first time anyone has scored triple digits on the Saints since Memphis did it Jan. 3, 2008.

Minutes pick: Niagara in a classic.

Missouri Valley (18), March 5-8, St. Louis.

The favorite: Creighton, which shared the league championship with Northern Iowa. At 25-6, the Bluejays should be close to locking up an at-large bid but will play as if their NCAA life depends on it.

The spoiler: Would you believe 2008 champion Drake? The eighth-seeded Bulldogs have fallen back on hard times since Keno Davis split for Providence, but they've also beaten both Creighton and Northern Iowa on their home courts. It's a long shot to go from the Thursday first round all the way through Sunday afternoon, but you never know.

Minutes pick: Creighton.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Chappell
Duncan Williams/Icon SMIRobert Morris ran away with the NEC behind conference player of the year Jeremy Chappell.

Northeast (19), March 5-11, campus sites.

The favorite: Robert Morris, which won the league by three games.

The spoiler: Watch out for seventh-seeded Wagner, which closed the regular season with four straight victories, including upsets of top seed Robert Morris, No. 2 seed Mount St. Mary's and No. 5 seed Quinnipiac.

Minutes pick: Third-seeded Sacred Heart, which brings a five-game winning streak into the tournament.

Ohio Valley (20), March 3-7, campus sites and then Nashville for semifinals and final.

The favorite: Tennessee-Martin barely won the league title over Murray State, Austin Peay and Morehead State.

The spoiler: Murray State, which has won seven straight league games and 10 of its past 11.

Minutes pick: The tepid choice is Murray, even though the Racers likely will have to beat an Austin Peay team in the semis that it already has lost to twice this season -- albeit by a total of four points.

Patriot (21), March 4-13, campus sites.

The favorite: American. The Eagles went 13-1 in league play and their RPI rank of 76 is 67 spots better than the next-best in the league (Navy).

The spoiler: Second-seeded Holy Cross, which knows the way to the NCAAs under coach Ralph Willard. But the Crusaders will have to beat Bucknell in the quarterfinals, as the two rivals meet for the seventh time in the past eight tournaments.

Minutes pick: American. The No. 1 seed has made the final in all 18 previous tournaments, so it's wise to stick with the top dog.

Southern (22), March 6-9, Chattanooga, Tenn.

The favorite: Davidson, perhaps? But this won't be the walkover of previous seasons for the Wildcats.

The spoiler: College of Charleston and The Citadel both have beaten Davidson this year and both are playing well. C of C has won five straight, and The Citadel has won 12 of 13.

Minutes pick: Davidson. Stephen Curry doesn't have the surrounding cast of years past, but he won't let his team be beaten before securing an NCAA bid.

[+] EnlargeBen Woodside
AP Photo/Eric LandwehrBen Woodside can light up the scoreboard, having scored 60 against Stephen F. Austin this season.

Summit (23), March 7-10, Sioux Falls, S.D. Madness finally comes to the Dakotas, which until recently had been bereft of tourney-eligible Division I teams. Go crazy, folks.

The favorite: North Dakota State. The Bison won the league and have the best RPI rank by 32 slots.

The spoiler: Oakland rolls into Sioux Falls on a seven-game winning streak.

Minutes pick: Look for the Bison to lock up their first NCAA tournament berth by winning the most geographically nonsensical league of them all. States represented by the eight teams in the tourney: North Dakota, South Dakota, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Indiana, Utah and Michigan.

Sun Belt (24), March 4-10, campus sites and then Hot Springs, Ark., for quarterfinals, semifinals and final.

The favorite: Defending champion and 2008 Sweet 16 team Western Kentucky repeated as regular-season titlist under new coach Ken McDonald.

The spoiler: Troy is the No. 3 seed, enjoys a bye into the semifinals and has been on fire in 2009. The Trojans have lost just two games since Jan. 1, by a total of three points.

Minutes pick: Troy, which beat Western when they met last, on Valentine's Day.

West Coast (25), March 6-9, Las Vegas.

The favorite: Gonzaga, which ran the table in the regular season.

The spoiler: Saint Mary's, which regrouped after the initial shock of losing superguard Patty Mills to a broken hand and has now won five straight.

Minutes pick: Saint Mary's. With Andy Katz's news Monday that Mills has been cleared to play, The Minutes is going with the replenished -- and more desperate -- Gaels.

Big Man's Month

Commonly accepted college basketball wisdom says that this is a guard's game, and backcourt play is the key to enjoying this month. But if you take a look at The Minutes' list of leading candidates to be Mr. March, you'll see seven guys who stand 6-foot-6 or taller -- six of them playing in the frontcourt, five of them rarely leaving the paint.

Here's your list of the guys most likely to take extended star turns while leading their teams toward April:

[+] EnlargeCole Aldrich
Douglas Jones/US PresswireCole Aldrich has been a force in the middle for Kansas.

Cole Aldrich (26), Kansas. The 6-foot-11 sophomore shares top billing with a guy a foot shorter (see below). But Aldrich is literally and figuratively the biggest part of the Jayhawks' remarkable continuation of last season's success. His season averages have exploded from 2.8 points, 3 rebounds and 0.9 blocked shots as a freshman to 15.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks this year. In KU's current five-game winning streak he's averaging 19 points and 12.8 rebounds, and he's dunking pretty much everything he gets his hands on.

Little man behind the big man: Sherron Collins. The confident little junior has been on fire shooting the ball, hitting 17 of his past 29 3-point shots. The 3s he made at Oklahoma last week were preposterously big. After the play he made to help Kansas pull out the national title in April, no situation will unnerve Collins.

DeJuan Blair (27), Pittsburgh. Last time Blair made fewer than half the shots he took in a game, it was 2008. The powerhouse center never forces it on offense and rarely fails to retrieve missed shots in his area -- forget double-doubles, he has racked up 10 games with double-figure points and 15 or more rebounds. The important thing for Blair this month will be how the games are called -- he has fouled out of two of Pitt's three losses and had four fouls in the other defeat.

Little man behind the big man: Point guard Levance Fields takes care of the ball the way Westchester Kennel Club members take care of their dogs. He hasn't had more turnovers than assists in a game since the 2008 NCAA tournament. And don't forget forward Sam Young, who is merely the Panthers' leading scorer.

Tyreke Evans (28), Memphis. Can a freshman be The Man deep into March? Ask Derrick Rose, Greg Oden or Carmelo Anthony. Evans might not be quite as talented as those three, but he's at the top of the current freshman class. The 6-6 point guard didn't play well last week -- 9-of-29 shooting, 13 turnovers, six assists -- but he has had a brilliant season. Unless he's hitting the wall, he'll continue to be a matchup headache in the postseason.

Big man behind the medium-sized man: Robert Dozier. While Evans was struggling last week, the permanently skinny senior Dozier was racking up 33 points and 17 rebounds. He made 12 of his 18 shots, but more impressive was the 4-for-4 shooting from 3-point range. If Dozier consistently produces, Memphis will be a very tough out.

[+] EnlargeBlake Griffin
Brendan Maloney/US PresswireThere's little doubt that Blake Griffin is the Sooners' -- and nation's -- No. 1 guy.

Blake Griffin (29), Oklahoma. If there was any doubt about the national player of the year, it should have been extinguished over the past 10 days. While Griffin was out for nearly two full games with a concussion, the Sooners went 0-2 -- that underscored his value. When Griffin returned against Texas Tech on Saturday, he flew all over the court, including a headfirst dive over the scorer's table -- that underscored his heart. There was no tiptoeing back into action for Griffin, and there will be no tiptoeing through this month.

Little man behind the big man: Willie Warren. The explosive scorer is not far behind Evans among college rookies, although Warren was pulled from the starting lineup and then played just 12 scoreless minutes against Texas Tech. If he's not back to playing a major role Wednesday at Missouri, it might be a troubling sign for the Sooners.

Tyler Hansbrough (30), North Carolina. Amazingly and somewhat mystifyingly, Hansbrough's profile has appreciably dipped during his senior season. He was supposed to be the face of college basketball and the landslide player of the year favorite, but instead he's just another face in the big-man crowd. What has changed? Well, the Heels have lost just enough to slip from their prohibitive No. 1 perch, and Hansbrough's productivity has dipped a bit. His scoring is down 1.3 points, rebounds are down 2.4 and steals are cut nearly in half from last season. Hansbrough isn't getting to the foul line quite as much, either, perhaps because officials have stopped giving him calls when he jumps into defenders. Regardless, it's hard not to envision Carolina in Detroit and Hansbrough's playing a leading role in such a run.

Little man behind the big man: Ty Lawson. He's the tempo master and table-setter for the Tar Heels, and some believe Lawson is even more integral to Carolina's success than Hansbrough. Making sure Lawson is on top of his game will be of paramount importance for Roy Williams.

Hasheem Thabeet (31), Connecticut. He's simply the most intimidating and influential defensive presence in college hoops, and that won't change until Thabeet puts his name in the draft. The 7-foot-3 junior was surprisingly cowed by Blair a couple of weeks ago, but since then he has gotten back to business, averaging 17 points, 11.7 rebounds and 6.3 blocks over three games.

Little man behind the big man: A.J. Price. The senior recently had a six-game stretch of shooting worse than 50 percent in every outing, but since then he has been deadly. Price has made 16 of his past 28 shots, including 9 of 17 3s. The 36 points he dropped on Marquette was a masterpiece against some of the best guards in the country.

Terrence Williams (32), Louisville. He's the most versatile player in the country, and showed it throughout the Cardinals' victory over Marquette on Sunday. Williams hurt the Golden Eagles with three 3-pointers in the first half, hauled down eight rebounds and contributed significantly to a shut-down defensive effort on Jerel McNeal. And when Marquette went to a triangle-and-two defense late in the game to deny Louisville's guards the ball, Williams moved to the point and rifled precision passes inside for layups.

Big man behind the medium-sized man: Earl Clark. His offensive effectiveness tends to be directly proportional to his proximity to the rim. The more the 6-10 forward leaks out to the perimeter to launch 3s, the smaller his impact. But when he's posting up or driving to the rim he's tough to stop, and his length and athleticism make him a terrific rebounder and daunting defender.

If'n Game

If the stretch run goes wrong and these teams wind up on the wrong side of the bubble, they'll be able to pinpoint the precise moments -- often the precise shots -- when an NCAA bid slipped away.

Virginia Tech (33). Record: 17-11, 7-7 in the ACC. RPI: 59. Heartburn moments: Hokies lost to Xavier on a 50-foot 3-pointer in November. Ten days later they lost to Wisconsin on a shot by Trevon Hughes with less than a second remaining. Get back even one of those two and Tech is feeling a lot better about things today.

[+] EnlargeFlorida Kentucky
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeFlorida's loss to Kentucky in February could be a heartbreaker in the long run.

Florida (34). Record: 21-8, 8-6 in the SEC. RPI: 50. Heartburn moments: The Gators were beaten Jan. 21 by a point at South Carolina -- a game in which Florida missed the potentially game-icing foul shot with 3.3 seconds left, and the Gamecocks turned it into a run-out layup at the buzzer to win by a point. Then on Feb. 10 at Kentucky, Florida was victimized by an off-balance Jodie Meeks 3-pointer with less than five seconds left, followed by three missed free throws by star guard Nick Calathes with a chance to tie. There went two great opportunities for quality road wins.

Arizona (35). Record: 18-11, 8-8 in the Pac-10. RPI: 47. Heartburn moments: Twice, sophomore forward Jamelle Horne committed fouls when you absolutely, positively did not want to commit a foul. The first was in November against UAB, when Horne lost track of the score and intentionally fouled Paul Delaney near midcourt in a tie game with less than a second remaining. Delaney made one free throw for the victory. The second was during Pac-10 play, when Horne pushed USC's Daniel Hackett out of bounds with 1.8 seconds left in a tie game. Hackett made one of two shots to win. If it doesn't work out for the Wildcats, somebody best give Horne a hug -- he's going to feel terrible.

Kansas State (36). Record: 20-9, 8-6 in the Big 12. RPI: 72. Heartburn moments: One day after losing to Kentucky by two points, the Wildcats were beaten on a layup at the buzzer by Iowa. Next game K-State lost to Oregon by five. Losses to dregs of the Big Ten and the Pac-10 do not help the cause.

Creighton (37). Record: 25-6, 14-4 in the Missouri Valley. RPI: 39. Heartburn moments: The Bluejays lost on a putback basket with 6.9 seconds left against Arkansas-Little Rock on Nov. 25. Four days later, Nebraska beat Creighton on a layup with 2.7 seconds remaining.

Cats Lose, State Emergency Ensues (Almost Literally)

Only in Kentucky does this happen:

The struggling Wildcats (38) are beaten on a 3-pointer with 10 seconds left by LSU's Tasmin Mitchell on Saturday afternoon in Rupp Arena. Shortly thereafter, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson (39) issues a Twitter blast on the subject:

"Maybe AJ Stewart should consider quitting again if he is going to leave his man wide open for a game winning shot."

Stewart, a junior forward, was indeed the man guarding Mitchell on the fateful play. And Stewart did indeed briefly quit the Kentucky team last week, only to reconsider and return in short order.

In reality, though, Stewart was doing his job on the play, switching on a screen at the top of the key. It was teammate Kevin Galloway who bungled the defensive assignment by failing to switch off his man (Marcus Thornton) and onto Mitchell.

So Grayson should have hammered Galloway if the state cabinet member felt the need to rip a college kid for contributing to the demise of his favorite team. Grayson updated the following day:

"Perhaps I was too hard on Stewart because maybe Galloway was supposed to switch but I just got some Heaton's BBQ and will soon feel better."

After the original Twitter post was picked up by Lexington Herald-Leader columnist John Clay, Grayson was hardly contrite.

"Welcome to readers of John Clay's blog. Like you, I am a passionate UK fan. And I make no apologies for it. Go Cats!"

So it's clear that Kentucky players are not under any, you know, pressure or anything. It's not like a man considered a possible successor to U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning is expressing digital disdain over every missed defensive switch -- just the end of game missed switches.

Clearly, the Cats could use some TLC from Ashley Judd (40).

Buzzer-Beater

The Minutes is getting ready to get back on the road this week, promise. But in the meantime, when thirsty in Louisville you should grab a pint of something Irish at Molly Malone's in the Highlands. And say hello to Cardinals assistant coach Steve Masiello if you see him there.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.