Commentary

Let's hear it for the little guy

Originally Published: March 10, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (court-storming computer protection sold separately in Ithaca, N.Y.):

Adventures In Small Ball, Cont.

Why does The Minutes love the small-conference tournaments? It can be summed up in a single sentence from Kenny Thomas (1), minutes after his team won the Big South championship Saturday afternoon:

"Finally, Radford isn't little ol' Radford for once," Thomas told the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch.

For all the little ol' schools out there, this is your shining moment to live large. The Big East and ACC behemoths will be along shortly to take over the joint.

Morehead Mania

The Minutes hates to interrupt the squabbling over bubble teams -- OK, some quick Committee Of One decrees: Davidson is a regrettable no; Auburn is a not yet; New Mexico is a yes; Creighton takes a back seat to Illinois State (1-2 against the Redbirds, with a minus-42 point differential); and the entire Big Ten mess will be sorted out later this week in Indy -- but let's get on to discussing two teams that are off the bubble.

[+] EnlargeMorehead State
Jim Brown/US PresswireMorehead State is the Kentucky school that will be dancing this season.

Either all the way in or so far out they need to win their league tournament.

You know this season has gone haywire when perpetually miserable Morehead State (2) is dancing while, 60 miles down I-64, kingpin Kentucky (3) is sulking its way toward the NIT. But these are the vicissitudes of college basketball, where nothing is forever. The Eagles can rise up and earn their first NCAA tournament bid in 25 years, and the Wildcats can collapse to the verge of their first NIT bid in 30.

But The Minutes is here to praise the small-school winners, not bury the big-name losers. Suffice it to say, Ashley Judd (4) ain't pleased. We'll leave it at that and return to Morehead State.

Between 1984 and 2009, the Eagles had six 20-loss seasons and one 20-win season. They never so much as made an Ohio Valley Conference tournament final, much less win one. They changed coaches four times.

And now they're dancing, thanks to one of the more startling star turns in recent years. Say hello to Steve Peterson (5), who until the final two seconds of the second overtime against Austin Peay in Nashville on Saturday was one of the most obscure players in Division I.

Peterson is a quiet freshman from Columbus, Ga. ("I don't do much talking, now," he said.) He's averaging 1.8 points per game. Morehead played 90 minutes of basketball in Nashville in the OVC semifinals and final, and Peterson was scoreless for the first 89 minutes and 58 seconds.

In fact, Peterson was surprised to hear coach Donnie Tyndall call his name to check into the game right before the decisive play, when a teammate fouled out.

"I was surprised, but I couldn't be nervous," Peterson said. "If I was, I probably would've missed. But I was determined, if I got the ball, to do something with it."

[+] EnlargeAshley Judd
Brendan Hoffman/Getty ImagesKentucky in the NIT? This makes Ashley sad.
He got the ball, all right -- in the corner, tie game, time dwindling, bid on the line. Peterson did what came naturally -- faking a shot and taking one dribble to go past a defender, then rising for a 15-foot baseline jumper.

"It felt good," he said. "But until it went through the net, I wasn't sure."

By the time it hit net with 1.4 seconds left, it was merely the biggest shot in at least a quarter century of Morehead basketball.

"That's a dream right there," Peterson said.

And that's what March Madness is all about. Big dreams for little schools and big shots by players you've never heard of.

Need A Fourth

Barring a first-round conference tournament loss, The Minutes sees three solidly entrenched No. 1 seeds come Sunday: Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Connecticut. The fourth is where it gets interesting.

The candidates:

[+] EnlargeBlake Griffin
Jerry Laizure/US PresswireCan Blake Griffin and Oklahoma right the ship to secure a No. 1 seed?

Oklahoma (6). Rankings: Fifth by RPI; seventh by ESPN/USA Today poll; eighth by Sagarin; 17th by Ken Pomeroy. Record: 27-4. The case for a top seed: Half the Sooners' losses (including one to Kansas) came without lock national Player of the Year Blake Griffin, who was out with a concussion, and a third came without energy guy Juan Pattillo; quality nonconference wins over Purdue, Utah, USC, UAB and VCU; good conference record in a power league. The case against a top seed: The Sooners have lost three of their past five and haven't played dominant basketball against quality competition in weeks; they didn't win their league -- and it's not an epic year in the Big 12 to begin with; any team that loses to Arkansas cannot be a No. 1.

Kansas (7). Rankings: Eighth by RPI; 10th by Pomeroy; 11th by ESPN/USA Today poll; 11th by Sagarin. Record: 25-6. The case for a top seed: Young Jayhawks have been on a two-month roll, going 14-2 and winning the Big 12 title; they own sharp victories over Pac-10 champion Washington, MAAC champ Siena and SEC East champ Tennessee. The case against a top seed: Two losses against lousy competition (Massachusetts and Texas Tech -- the latter just last week); signature victory over Sooners came with Griffin on the bench; smoked in January by top-seed competitor Michigan State.

Louisville (8). Rankings: Fifth by ESPN/USA Today poll; sixth by Sagarin; eighth by Pomeroy; ninth by RPI. Record: 25-5. The case for a top seed: The Cardinals won the epically tough Big East outright, including an 8-1 road record; they're on a late-season roll, winning seven straight; all five losses are to teams either assured of a bid or on the NCAA bubble. The case against a top seed: They played Big East big dogs UConn, Pitt, Marquette and Villanova only once each; lost on neutral court to Western Kentucky and Minnesota and at home to a UNLV team without its best player (Wink Adams); lost by 33 at Notre Dame.

[+] EnlargeTyreke Evans
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesCan Tyreke Evans carry the Tigers to a top seed?

Memphis (9). Rankings: First by Pomeroy; third by ESPN/USA Today poll; fifth by Sagarin; seventh by RPI. Record: 28-3. The case for a top seed: The Tigers are packing the nation's longest winning streak and killing just about everyone; won last two nonconference road games at Tennessee and Gonzaga; Pomeroy loves 'em; not the Tigers' fault Conference USA is terrible. The case against a top seed: Conference USA is terrible; they have as many Big East losses as Louisville (two) in only four tries, none against the league's top five teams; 0-2 against current RPI top 20.

Michigan State (10). Rankings: Sixth by both RPI and ESPN/USA Today poll; seventh by Sagarin; 11th by Pomeroy. Record: 25-5. The case for a top seed: The Spartans easily won a better-than-expected Big Ten; own 12 wins against the RPI top 50, tops in the nation; soundly beat Kansas head-to-head; have rarely put a fully healthy team on the floor until lately. The case against a top seed: They lost at home to Penn State and Northwestern; lost by 18 to Maryland and 35 to North Carolina in Detroit; Big Ten as a whole might have regressed since December.

Duke (11). Rankings: Second by RPI; fourth by Sagarin; sixth by Pomeroy; eighth by ESPN/USA Today poll. Record: 25-6. The case for a top seed: The Blue Devils are the second-best team in an exceptional league; RPI loves 'em; played a strong nonconference schedule, with victories over Xavier, Purdue, Michigan, Rhode Island and Davidson; fared better against Carolina than Michigan State did. The case against a top seed: They're not even the ACC tourney's No. 2 seed, which went to Wake Forest; went 1-1 against Michigan, a team Michigan State swept; lost by 27 to Clemson.

Minutes verdict: Fortunately for the selection committee, the Big 12 moved its title game to Saturday. That means the committee will have all the data from every conference tournament of the teams involved except Michigan State and Duke. If Louisville wins the Big East it would be impossible to deny the Cardinals a top seed as the champions of both the regular season and the tournament. Otherwise, it could go to the Jayhawks or Sooners if either team wins the Big 12 or to the Spartans if they make the Big Ten final Sunday afternoon. If they all bow out earlier than expected, make way for Memphis or Duke.

Conference Call

The Minutes hands out some end-of-season hardware to the big-six leagues and completes Part II of the conference tournament predictions:

Atlantic Coast (12), March 12-15, Atlanta. Let's hope for better weather here this year.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Hamilton
Rex Brown/Getty ImagesIt was a long time coming, but Leonard Hamilton has the Seminoles heading to the Dance.

Player of the Year: Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina. There is unbelievable competition for this award, and for first-team All-ACC honors. But when in doubt, take the leading scorer and rebounder for the league champions. Even though teammate Ty Lawson might be more vital the rest of the way.

Coach of the Year: Leonard Hamilton, Florida State. The wait is over in Tallahassee. The Seminoles are locks to finally earn their first bid under Hamilton, who put the offense in point guard Toney Douglas' capable hands and surrounded him with a solid supporting cast.

Freshman of the Year: Al-Farouq Aminu, Wake Forest. Barely beats out Virginia's Sylven Landesberg. If Aminu returns to school next season, the Demon Deacons will be really tough.

Tournament favorite: North Carolina. That 0-2 league start seems like it happened 12 years ago.

Team that could bust the bracket: North Carolina State (13). The 10th-seeded Wolfpack won four of their last eight ACC games after a brutal start and still have three key players from State's run to the tourney final a couple of years ago. This is the last chance for a couple of them to do something significant in a red uniform. Upset Maryland in the first round and inconsistent Wake Forest is waiting in the second.

Biggest bubble game: Miami-Virginia Tech, Thursday at noon. Loser is likely doomed. Winner might need to add one more quality win by upsetting the Tar Heels in the quarterfinals.

Minutes pick: Duke. Hunch play says winning the final means more to the Blue Devils than the Heels, and the Demon Deacons are too young to win it.

Atlantic 10 (14), March 11-14, Atlantic City, N.J.

Favorite: Xavier. The Musketeers won the league with relative ease, but their shaky recent history in this tourney makes them only the tepid fave.

Team that could bust the bracket: Sixth-seeded Richmond. The Spiders have a chance to upset Dayton in the quarterfinals. Flyers haven't advanced to the A-10 semis since 2004.

Minutes pick: Rhode Island (15). No need to sweat out the selection show. Jimmy Baron shoots the Rams past the Musketeers and into the NCAAs. Dad smiles just a little bit beneath his mustache.

Big East (16), March 11-14, New York.

[+] EnlargeTerrence Williams
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesTerrence Williams has been doing a little of everything for Louisville this season.

POY: Terrence Williams, Louisville. The pick here is as difficult as it is in the ACC. Williams gets the narrow nod based on versatility (no other Division I player is averaging 12 points, eight rebounds and five assists per game) and the win column. Since his shooting stroke has straightened out in the second half of the season, he's been borderline illegal.

COY: Jay Wright, Villanova (17). The Minutes loved what Buzz Williams did in his first year in charge at Marquette, but Wright gets the nod for bringing his team on strong at the end and earning a top-four seed for the tournament.

FOY: Devin Ebanks, West Virginia. It's a testament to the league's toughness that a lot of very talented freshmen struggled at times this season. Ebanks hit his share of potholes, but has blossomed down the stretch. He has scored in double figures in nine straight games, had five double-doubles in that stretch and has averaged four assists over his past 10 games.

Favorite: Pittsburgh. The Panthers always thrive in the Garden, and Louisville rarely does.

Team that could bust the bracket: Syracuse might be the most talented No. 6 seed in league tournament history. The Minutes gives the Orange a solid shot to upset UConn in the quarterfinals Thursday night.

Biggest bubble game: Potential Providence-Cincinnati second-round game Wednesday. The Bearcats need that plus more to get in; the Friars might have an argument with one tourney win.

Minutes pick: Pittsburgh. Hard to go against the Panthers, given their talent and history in this event. But The Minutes wonders whether Pitt might be better off tanking this tourney and concentrating on the bigger prize.

Big Ten (18), March 12-15, Indianapolis.

POY: Evan Turner (19), Ohio State. In conference play, Turner ranks first in scoring (17.3 ppg), fourth in rebounding (6.8) and tied for second in assists (4.4). He's also shooting 51 percent from the field.

COY: Bruce Weber, Illinois. Nobody looked at the Illini before the season started and saw a second-place squad. But that's where they are now, which should quell any lingering grumbling after Weber's inability to sustain the success of 2005. (Honorable mention to Ed DeChellis of Penn State. He might have been the choice here if not for that costly stumble over the weekend against Iowa.)

FOY: Tough call between Matt Gatens of Iowa and B.J. Mullens of Ohio State, but The Minutes is going with Mullens. He might not have lived up to all the preseason hype, but in conference play the big man leads the league in field goal percentage (70.3), and ranks 13th in rebounding (5.4) and sixth in blocked shots (1.1).

Favorite: Michigan State. Just about everyone else is staggering into this tournament, unable to string together long periods of success. The Spartans roll in on a five-game winning streak.

Team that could bust the bracket: No. 11 seed Indiana. Call The Minutes crazy, but the endlessly plucky Hoosiers will upset Penn State in the opening round and then take on archrival Purdue in a quarterfinal that will get Conseco rocking.

Biggest bubble game: Minnesota-Northwestern, the first game of a bubble-riffic Thursday at Conseco Fieldhouse, with Penn State and Michigan playing their games later in the day. Gophers might need only one victory to ensure a bid; Wildcats need at least two.

Minutes pick: Michigan State. There figures to be a lot of missed shots in this tournament, and nobody collects missed shots at both ends like the Spartans. They also take the fewest 3-pointers of anyone in the league, and this tourney will be won on the inside.

Big 12 (20), March 11-14, Oklahoma City.

[+] EnlargeBill Self
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesBill Self deserves kudos for reloading his Kansas squad.

POY: Blake Griffin, Oklahoma. If he played in any other league, Kansas guard Sherron Collins would have a compelling argument to make. But up against Griffin? Sorry.

COY: Bill Self, Kansas. Barely wins it over Missouri's Mike Anderson, for having cobbled together a conference champion out of new parts and improved former supporting actors. The Minutes expected the Jayhawks to be a Top 25 team this season, but not a top-10 squad.

FOY: Willie Warren, Oklahoma. He hasn't played well in the Sooners' final three games (18 total points on 6-for-21 shooting), but Warren has had a sensational season. He's been exactly the perimeter offensive force Oklahoma needed to complement Griffin's power game inside.

Favorite: Kansas. Yeah, the Sooners are playing in their home state -- but they're not playing great basketball down the stretch. And since the Jayhawks won the regular-season title, they get to wear the bull's-eye.

Team that could bust the bracket: Seventh-seeded Oklahoma State. The hot Cowboys could play Oklahoma in a fun quarterfinal game. If they win that one, look out.

Biggest bubble game: Texas A&M-Texas Tech. The Aggies are almost assuredly in, but a loss to the dreadful Red Raiders would best be avoided. Otherwise there's not much bubble drama in this league unless Nebraska or Baylor crashes the final.

Minutes pick: Oklahoma State (21). Upset special. The Cowboys' hectic style of play will wreak havoc on tired teams as the tourney wears on.

Big West (22), March 11-14, Anaheim, Calif.

Favorite: Cal State Northridge. The Matadors won the league by capturing nine of their last 12 games.

Team that could bust the bracket: Third-seeded Pacific. The Tigers beat Northridge twice and are coached by the cagey Bob Thomason, winningest coach in league history. Of course, they'll probably have to go through Long Beach, which beat Pacific twice itself.

Minutes pick: Pacific. Long Beach and Northridge both get double byes, but The Minutes is going with the ultra-balanced Tigers.

Conference USA (23), March 11-14, Memphis, Tenn.

Favorite: Memphis. What, you were expecting East Carolina?

Team that could bust the bracket: UAB. Robert Vaden (24) can stroke it, but his shot has gone apocalyptically bad -- he has made nine of his past 49 3s. But if he gets his stroke back, he could shoot the third-seeded Blazers into the final -- whereupon they would be bludgeoned by the Tigers.

Minutes pick: Memphis. The Tigers are playing at home against an outmatched league and gunning for a No. 1 seed, so this should be the ultimate anticlimax tournament.

Mid-American (24), March 10-14, Cleveland.

Favorite: Bowling Green. The Falcons were the best of an undistinguished group, winning 10 of their last 12 league games -- including an 11-point road win over the other team that went 11-5, Buffalo. Now they get the conference tourney close to home.

Team that could bust the bracket: Kent State (25). The defending champion Golden Flashes' No. 6 seed is misleading; they've won 10 of their past 12, with the losses coming on the road by a total of six points. A possible quarterfinal matchup with third-seeded Buffalo could lead the way to the final.

Minutes pick: Bowling Green. Time for the Falcons to claim their first NCAA bid in 41 years. Their coach last time: Bill Fitch, who would go on to win the 1981 NBA title with Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics.

Mid-Eastern Athletic (26), March 10-14, Winston-Salem, N.C.

Todd Bozeman
AP Photo/Karl DeBlakerTodd Bozeman and Morgan State fell short of the NCAA tournament last season.

Favorite: Morgan State. The Bears won the league by three games and come in having won 10 of their past 11 games under a coach you might have heard of before: Todd Bozeman.

Team that could bust the bracket: Hampton. If the seventh-seeded Pirates can somehow navigate their way to the final, look out. They handed Morgan State two of its three league losses and have won the tournament three times this decade.

Minutes pick: Morgan State (27). How heavy is the burden of anticipation upon the Bears? This would be the first bid in school history. Last year they were in much the same situation, having won the league and 20 games, only to be denied by Coppin State by a basket in the league tournament. Not this time.

Mountain West (28), March 11-14, Las Vegas.

Favorite: BYU. The Cougars claimed the top seed by winning nine of their last 10 games in this super-balanced league.

Team that could bust the bracket: UNLV (29). The Runnin' Rebels are the No. 5 seed but are playing in their own building, where they went 7-1 in the league this season. But the first game is against the only MWC team to win in the Thomas & Mack Center, San Diego State.

Minutes pick: New Mexico. The only team hotter than the Cougars is the Lobos, who arrive in Vegas on a five-game winning streak that includes an authoritative victory over then-first place Utah. If New Mexico can beat the Utes again in the semis, they could face UNLV in the final.

Pac-10 (30), March 11-14, Los Angeles.

POY: James Harden, Arizona State. In conference games he ranks first in the league in scoring, 13th in rebounding, sixth in assists and fourth in steals. And make no mistake, as Harden goes, so goes ASU. When he makes less than 50 percent of his field goals, the Sun Devils are 4-7. When he makes 50 percent or more of his shots, they are 18-1.

COY: Plenty of quality candidates, from Lorenzo Romar to Mike Montgomery to Craig Robinson to Russ Pennell. The Minutes is going with Monty, whose California team was picked eighth in the preseason but has the No. 3 seed going into this event.

FOY: Isaiah Thomas, Washington. Averaged 16 points per game in league play for the league champions.

Favorite: UCLA. The Bruins are the No. 2 seed, but they're also the defending champs, have won four straight and are playing in their own backyard.

Team that could bust the bracket: Washington State (31). The seventh-seeded Cougars already have beaten the Bruins once in L.A. this season and could get a second shot in the quarterfinals.

Biggest bubble game: Arizona-Arizona State in the quarterfinals. The Sun Devils are in, but the Wildcats are precariously perched on the bubble, probably needing one more victory to feel secure.

Minutes pick: Washington. The top-seeded Huskies have beaten every team in the league but Cal, and the Bears are on the opposite side of the bracket. With its surplus of firepower, Washington doesn't need to ride a single player over the course of three games.

Southeastern (32), March 12-15, Tampa, Fla.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Thornton
AP Photo/Bill FeigMarcus Thornton is second in the conference in scoring, but his team is No. 1.

POY: Marcus Thornton, LSU. There are four leading candidates: Thornton, Jodie Meeks of Kentucky, Nick Calathes of Florida and Devan Downey of South Carolina. Meeks has the biggest scoring numbers -- none bigger than the school-record 54 he hung on Tennessee -- but the Wildcats are a train wreck and this is a team game. Calathes does everything, but the Gators haven't done much as a whole. Downey hits more big shots than any tiny (5-foot-9) guard in the country, but he hasn't scored as many points in league play as Thornton -- whose team is the league champion.

COY: Trent Johnson, LSU. He took over a veteran group and improved it dramatically from the soured leadership of John Brady. (Special Minutes shout-out to Auburn's Jeff Lebo. The Minutes put Lebo on the hot seat when the Tigers were 2-5 in the SEC. After finishing 10-6, let's just say Lebo's job is safe.)

FOY: Terrico White, Mississippi. Averaged 18.4 points per game in league play, and ranked among the top 15 in assists and field goal percentage as well. Only Meeks made more 3-pointers in league play than White.

Favorite: LSU. The Tigers won the league by a mile, then relaxed and lost their last two games of the regular season. If they regain their edge they'll be tough to beat.

Team that could bust the bracket: Vanderbilt. The Commodores won their last three games behind a suddenly healthy A.J. Ogilvy. If they beat Alabama on Thursday they'll have a chance to end Tennessee's SEC tournament early -- and that's been known to happen annually under Bruce Pearl.

Biggest bubble game: A potential Florida-Auburn quarterfinal game. Loser can skip watching the Selection Show, because they won't be seeing their name, while the winner will have to keep winning. But the Gators have to beat Arkansas to make that game happen.

Minutes pick: Auburn (33). Very hot team in a very mediocre league.

Southland (34), March 12-15 in Katy, Texas.

Favorite: Stephen F. Austin. The league's top seed and only 20-win team comes in on a five-game winning streak.

Team that could bust the bracket: Third-seeded Sam Houston State. The high-octane Bearkats lost four league games by a total of 16 points.

Minutes pick: Stephen F. Austin (35). The Lumberjacks are another of those never-been-dancing teams poised to break through. After winning 26 games last season but flaming out in the semifinals, they're hungry to atone in '09.

Southwestern Athletic (36), March 11-14 in Birmingham, Ala.

Favorite: Alabama State. In a league that rarely has teams turn in dazzling overall records, the Hornets are one win away from 20 victories and have won 10 of their past 11.

Team that could bust the bracket: Prairie View. The only loss in the past six games for the third-seeded Panthers was against Alabama State.

Minutes pick: Alabama State. If for no other reason than to bring the greatest name in all of sports to the NCAA tournament: 7-foot-1 center Chief Kickingstallionsims (37). (Full name: Grlenntys Chief Kickingstallionsims Jr. Not a typo.) Who among us does not want to see the vividly monikered Chief get his moment in the Dance?

Western Athletic (38), March 10-14 in Reno, Nev.

Favorite: Utah State. The Aggies looked like an at-large lock until losing three of their final six games. They still won the league by three games, though.

Team that could bust the bracket: Boise State. The fourth-seeded Broncos could be one win away from playing Utah State in the semifinals, and they already know how to beat the big dogs after doing it in Boise on Valentine's Day.

Minutes pick: Nevada. Utah State hasn't won a game away from home in a month, and it has to play on the home court of league runner-up Nevada. Last year was the first time the Wolfpack missed the tournament since 2003, and they would like to get back.

Buzzer-Beater

When hungry and thirsty in St. Louis, The Minutes recommends a visit to Flannery's (39), a grade-A downtown sports bar. Have a buffalo chicken sandwich and a pint of local brew Schlafly (40), and check out the 14 TVs in the main bar area alone.

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