Big Dance: Who takes the crown?
Welcome to Forde Minutes, Big Dance Edition. Sixty-five names, games, teams and minutiae making news in the NCAA tournament (Ashley Judd's (1) NIT tickets sold separately):
To the 65 teams fortunate enough to see their names appear on Selection Sunday, we offer congratulations and a warm welcome. There is room here for Saints (from Siena (2)) and reformed sinners (Morgan State coach Todd Bozeman (3), back for the first time since a mid-90s scandal at California). For big dogs (the Connecticut Huskies (4)) and underdogs (Chattanooga (5), in at 18-16). For big names (Oklahoma superstar Blake Griffin (6)) and long names (Northern Iowa (7) has starters named Farokhmanesh, Ahelegbe and Eglseder) and no-names (Dallas Green (8) of Robert Morris and Steve Peterson (9) of Morehead State each scored one basket in their conference tournament finals -- the game winner).
But before we dive into this celebration of the bracket, a quick memo from North Dakota State (10), which made the tournament in its first year of Division I postseason eligibility, to Northwestern (11), which is now 0-for-71 all-time in pursuit of NCAA bids: What's so hard about this?
The Dance AbidesIt's been said a few million times that life imitates art. And if this quirky college basketball season has imitated anyone's art on the way to Selection Sunday, it's the cinematic work of the Coen brothers.
Who else could dream up this oddball plot? It began with North Carolina (12) touted as invincible and the Big East (13) considered unrivaled. It ended with the Tar Heels losing four times in their own league and the Big East getting no more NCAA bids than the Big Ten or ACC.
Who else could have scripted these bizarre situations? Jim Calhoun (14) in an economic shouting match against a reporter/political activist? Or in a six-overtime game against a Syracuse point guard who won't quit? (Hard to say who was a bigger pain in Calhoun's posterior, Ken Krayeske or Jonny Flynn.)
Who else could have concocted a story line in which nobody wanted to be No. 1 -- not in the polls and not with the tournament selection committee? The onslaught of Championship Week upsets merely follows the turbulence established from January through early March, when the top-ranked team lost repeatedly.
Who else but the guys who gave us the names Nathan Arizona and Ulysses Everett McGill would deliver a production that includes Akron guard Humpty Hitchens (15) and 7-foot-1 Alabama State center Chief Kickingstallionsims (16)? Chief and the Hornets have kickedsomeserioustail this season in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
Having reviewed that evidence, The Minutes has concluded that this Big Dance is actually a Coen brothers film festival. Roll the credits:
"Fargo." Home of the North Dakota State Bison. Their best player is shooting guard Ben Woodside (17). Woodside? Woodchipper? Hello? The 22.8-points-per-game scorer is also from Minnesota, just like Jerry Lundegaard.
"Raising Arizona State." Thanks to the restorative powers of coach Herb Sendek (18) and star James Harden (19), the Sun Devils are back in the Big Dance for the first time since 2003, and just the fourth time since 1981.
"The Big Parakhouski." By now you've hopefully seen 6-foot-11 Radford center Artsiom Parakhouski (20) (Para-COW-ski, rhymes with Lebow -- oh, you get it). He's an intriguing talent hidden away in the Big South Conference but coming to an NCAA first-round site near you. The Dude drank White Russians. Parakhouski is a white Belarusian. No word on whether he bowls or wears a robe.
"Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?" Radford coach Brad Greenberg is in the Dance, while younger bro Seth Greenberg of Virginia Tech is out. On the player front, Tyler Hansbrough (North Carolina) is in, Ben Hansbrough (Notre Dame transfer) is out. Reggie Delk (Louisville) is in, Richard Delk (Troy) is out. Jon Diebler (Ohio State) is in, Jake Diebler (Valparaiso) is out. Danny Green (North Carolina) is in, Rashad Green (San Francisco transfer) is out. Ryan Rossiter (Siena) is in, Steve Rossiter (Davidson) is out. Isaiah Dahlman (Michigan State) is in, while Noah Dahlman (Wofford) is out. Meanwhile, paterfamilias John Wooden (21) is out of the hospital and hopefully feeling well enough to watch this year's tournament.
"No Country for Old Men." Eight guys are taking their clipboards into the tournament for the first time as head coaches: Dino Gaudio of Wake Forest; Greenberg of Radford; Lewis Jackson of Alabama State; Ben Jacobson of Northern Iowa; Ken McDonald of Western Kentucky; Saul Phillips of North Dakota State; Donnie Tyndall of Morehead State; and Buzz Williams of Marquette.
"Miller's Crossing." The Minutes will be watching Xavier coach Sean Miller (22). Does his program cross over to the Final Four for the first time after reaching the Elite Eight last year? Does Miller cross over to a job at a big-six-conference school, or is he content having Xavier alongside Memphis, Gonzaga and Butler as the premier off-Broadway programs?
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"Barton Fink." Missouri's rehabilitation from a tailspin that began with jailhouse allegations by Barton County Community College transfer Ricky Clemons (23) of improprieties under former coach Quin Snyder is now complete. Third-year coach Mike Anderson has the Big 12 tournament champion Tigers back in the NCAAs for the first time since 2003, before Snyder's program collapsed.
"The Man Who Wasn't There." It feels wrong to hold the NCAA tournament without Stephen Curry (24), the shooting star of 2008.
"Intolerable Cruelty." It's bad enough for Kentucky fans to be on the outside looking in for the first time in 18 years. It's far worse to have bitter rival Louisville among the favorites to win it all under their former coach, Rick Pitino (25).
What A Bunch Of Losers
The proof of the turbulence of this 2008-09 college basketball season can be seen in the loss column. Only one team in Division I basketball lost as few as three games. Take a bow, Memphis (26), which enters the tournament 31-3. And thank Conference USA for once again playing '62 Mets to your '27 Yankees.
Last time we started a tournament in which the best record in the loss column was a single team with three defeats? The first one, in 1939.
From the moment Carolina lost for the first time back in early January, the carnage continued unabated. It climaxed Championship Week, when the top seeds in eight of the top nine RPI leagues all lost ... before the finals. Only Big East champion Louisville lived up to its top billing.
On the slight chance you didn't think this tournament was wide open, guess again. The old saying, "nobody is unbeatable" has never been more true. Just look at the records.
Pressure GaugeThe Minutes measures who will feel the greatest urgency to survive and advance in this Dance:
Tyler Hansbrough (27) & Co. Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green didn't come back to school because they couldn't bear to leave behind the Old Well. They came back to win a national title. After being shocked last year by Kansas in the Final Four, only one result will satisfy.
Pittsburgh (28). Over the past eight seasons, the Panthers have won 217 games -- but only 10 have come in NCAA tournament action. They haven't beaten a team seeded better than sixth and haven't advanced to a regional final in seven straight NCAA appearances. Last Final Four: 1941. Anything less than a Final Four trip will be a disappointment for this team.
Louisville (29). Cardinals fans have been waiting for a team this good since Pitino became their coach in 2001 and shot expectations into the stratosphere. The 2005 team overachieved to reach the Final Four; the current Cards could win it. (Four Pitino teams have been No. 1 NCAA seeds and most lived up to the billing -- one national champion, one runner-up, another Final Four team and a regional finalist.)
The Big East (30) as a whole. The powerhouse league hasn't gotten it done at tourney time in recent years, producing just one of the past 16 Final Four teams. If this really is the greatest conference in the history of conferences, as has been discussed all season, the Big East must get at least one team into the last weekend.
Oklahoma (31). The sense of urgency should be palpable in Norman. There will be no junior season for Griffin, and coach Jeff Capel is likely to entertain big-dollar offers to relocate as well.
Gonzaga (32). The Zags left their gritty overachiever label behind a while ago. Now, with a roster flush with big-time talent, it's time for a breakthrough. It's been a decade since Gonzaga made its one and only regional final.
Duke (33). Mike Krzyzewski used to own the keys to the NCAA tournament. Now he's been locked out of the Elite Eight the past four tourneys, losing to lower-seeded teams every time. This is his best Blue Devils squad since J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams powered a run to the 2004 Final Four, which means losing to another LSU or Texas or West Virginia won't play well.
Michigan State (34). The Final Four is just down I-96 in Detroit, and everyone has appraised the Spartans as talented and experienced enough to get there. But after a season of injuries and illness, Tom Izzo is still trying to fit his pieces into a high-functioning whole. Time is running out, but expectations are still running high.
The Big Ten (35) as a whole. If a league that has occasionally been as ugly as this one is going to get that many bids, the bubble teams must justify their inclusion. And multiple teams should reach the Sweet Sixteen.
Under No Pressure At All
Missouri (36). The Tigers haven't been to the NCAAs in six years and were picked to finish seventh in the Big 12, so they're playing with house money. And their frantic style of play tends to induce much more pressure on opponents.
Bill Self (37). Expectations are always high at Kansas, but Self should feel zero stress this March. He shrugged off a massive weight last year by making his first Final Four, then whipping Roy Williams, then winning it all.
Ohio State (38). The Buckeyes need to represent for the sake of the league's reputation, but this is a team that is absolutely a year away -- if everyone comes back. Check back next month to see if Thad Matta still has Evan Turner and B.J. Mullens to play with.
Butler (39). The Bulldogs are another team that has defied age (three freshman starters) and expectation (picked fifth in the Horizon League) to make the field. The pressure will mount appreciably in 2010 and '11, but there is none right now.
Everyone seeded 10th or lower. Watch tape from last year: Davidson, Western Kentucky, San Diego, Siena, etc. Channel their enjoyment of the moment. Lock arms and embrace your underdog status. Make it work for you. Shock the world.
Slipper Size, PleaseFive teams from lower-profile leagues that could pull an upset or two:
Northern Iowa (40). There isn't much in the way of jaw-dropping athleticism here, but good luck trying to get the Panthers to beat themselves. They're poised, deliberate and deep. They don't allow layups. They don't make mistakes with the ball.
Siena. The Saints love to push the ball and play at a fast tempo, which can shock a team that isn't accustomed to that style. And they know how to win in the tournament, having beaten Vanderbilt last year.
Utah State (42). The Aggies fortunately won the Western Athletic Conference, or else it would have been an unfairly uncomfortable waiting period on the bubble with 29 wins. They're expertly coached by Stew Morrill, efficient on offense and have a great story in leading scorer Gary Wilkinson, who did not play high school basketball.
VCU (43). The Rams rocked Duke two years ago in the tournament behind a dazzling sophomore guard named Eric Maynor and a talented young coach in Anthony Grant. Now Maynor (22.4 points per game) and Grant (a prominent name in a couple of coaching searches) are back and better than ever. They're buttressed by 6-10 sophomore Larry Sanders, who put up 18 points, 20 rebounds and seven blocked shots in the Colonial Athletic Association final.
Western Kentucky (44). Not even a coaching change from Darrin Horn to McDonald could interrupt the winning in Bowling Green. The Hilltoppers make hay with veteran guards Orlando Mendez-Valdez and A.J. Slaughter and have the experience of a Sweet Sixteen run a year ago.
What The Efficiency Guru SaysThe Minutes asked John Gasaway, co-author with Ken Pomeroy of the "College Basketball Prospectus," what his outside-the-mainstream statistics tell him regarding this NCAA tournament. Specifically, with office-pool players in mind, The Minutes asked for teams that might be underappreciated and those that might be overrated.
"As a perennial power who came within a free throw of the national championship last year, Memphis may not 'surprise' anyone but they definitely aren't receiving enough national respect. Their conference isn't very strong, it's true, but if you look at how they've performed within that not-very-strong conference, they're virtually identical to last year's team. No one can believe that, though, about a group that lost Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts.
"Speaking of last year's national championship game, Kansas (45) is well-situated to be underappreciated. The Jayhawks were shoved out of the Big 12 tournament in a heartbeat by Baylor, but over the course of the conference season they were excellent on both sides of the ball, especially on D. Cole Aldrich in particular is one of the best-kept secrets in the nation."
And the overrated?
"Wake Forest (46) is not as potent as I would expect from a former No. 1 team in the nation who's about to get a really nice seed.
"Staying in the ACC, Boston College (47) will be seen by the committee as a team that went 9-7 in the ACC, with wins at North Carolina and at home against Duke and Florida State. No-brainer. In addition to these facts, however, I also see a team that really struggles on D; one that in per-possession terms was only as good in their conference as teams like Providence, Kansas State and Alabama were in theirs."
The Other Three On The FloorIn addition to the 10 players on the floor and the head coaches, the other men under the microscope are in the striped shirts. College hoops officials are never under more scrutiny than they will be for the next three weeks.
The Minutes caught up with NCAA coordinator of officials John Adams (48) last week to see how he will be viewing the tournament and his refs' role in it.
On Friday at 5 p.m., the NCAA e-mailed the 96 officials who will be working the tournament to tell them they're in. At 5:45 p.m. Sunday, Adams got an advance copy of the bracket and began slotting in crews for individual games -- he'd already decided which crews were going to which sites. The job of matching crews to specific games is largely an effort to ensure there is no potential conflict of interest -- putting two refs who do a preponderance of SEC games on an LSU game, for instance.
On Sunday night, the tournament site managers will get on the phone and call the officials coming to their subregion, informing them whether they're working just one day or two. Adams, who wants to get some new blood moved into the elite ranks of officiating, said at least 10 rookies will get the call.
On Tuesday at 6 p.m., Adams will have a conference call with his refs. He'll go over general issues and protocol -- when it's OK to look at a monitor, when it's not, etc. And he'll remind them of the points of emphasis that have been in place all season: traveling, illegal screens, block/charge calls, etc. He'll reiterate that they should keep conversations with coaches to a minimum.
"We've spent all year getting ready for this," said Adams, who has seen 67 games in person and countless more on TV.
Then the refs go do their thing, and Adams hunkers down in Indianapolis with NCAA staffers Greg Shaheen and Tom Jernstedt in front of a bank of televisions to watch them work. In concert with tournament administrators at every site, they'll determine which refs keep working and which go home.
The on-site administrators will fill out rating cards on every ref with one of three judgments: strongly recommend to advance; recommend to advance; do not recommend to advance. Those cards will be sent to Adams.
The group will be cut from 96 to 48 to 36, and ultimately to nine for the Final Four -- three for each game. Just like the teams, they're all striving to advance.
"It's very competitive," Adams said. "They're all trying to get to Detroit."
Adams will be watching to see who handles the pressure of close games and heavy scrutiny. He knows basketball officials are subject to more second-guessing than ever.
"It's hard to keep a secret anymore," he said. "If you make a mistake, everyone sees it replayed. The media and so many people can see these games, and so many are close.
"To some people it's rarely the kid who screws up, it's the referee. It works better that way."
In many ways it's a thankless task, but it has its rewards. For nine men, the reward is a trip to the Final Four. Adams is watching to determine which nine earn it.
(To The Minutes' eye, one ref who has had another in a string of good seasons is John Cahill (49). Don't be surprised to see him working one of the games at Ford Field. Maybe even the last one.)
It's Been Such A Long Time ...... Since the following were in the Dance:
Morgan State (50). Last time the Bears were in: never. Longtime Division I program finally broke through and won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament after dominating the regular season.
Binghamton (51). Last time the Bearcats were in: never. Binghamton has been at this D-I thing a lot less time than some other programs, but a first is still a first for the America East champs.
Stephen F. Austin (52). Last time the Lumberjacks were in: never. Last year they won 26 games but flamed out in the conference tourney. This year they sealed the deal.
Morehead State (53). Last time the Eagles were in: 1984. Since then they've had six 20-loss seasons and been through four coaching changes before Tyndall arrived to work magic at his alma mater.
Akron (54). Last time the Zips were in: 1986. Coach at the time: Bob Huggins.
Five Players Ready To Bust OutTalented guys who appear to be raising their games at just the right time:
Robbie Hummel (55), Purdue. The preseason Big Ten Player of the Year stooped, limped and winced his way through much of the season with a back injury that prevented him from practicing. Hummel missed five full games and was limited in many others, but he's looked and played much better of late. Especially at the Big Ten tourney in Indy, where Hummel smoked Penn State for 20 points and Illinois for 19 points and 12 rebounds.
DeMar DeRozan (56), USC. A lot of people saw DeRozan as the most pro-ready freshman coming into the season, but he didn't play that way for most of the year. In his past five games, though, DeRozan has averaged 19.6 points and been the Trojans' best offensive player, helping take them to an unexpected bid.
Earl Clark (57), Louisville. An occasionally maddening talent, the 6-foot-10 junior appears to be on the same flight plan as last season: blowing up in the postseason. If it weren't for Flynn's ironman performance, Clark would have been the MVP of the Big East tourney after averaging 18 points, nine rebounds and 4.7 assists in Madison Square Garden.
Evan Turner (58), Ohio State. The sophomore has become the Buckeyes' de facto point guard, especially in late-game situations. Time and again this season, Ohio State has spread the floor and let Turner create off the drive from the top of the key -- either off a screen or one-on-one. His productivity is the biggest reason why Ohio State moved off the bubble and into dark-horse status for the NCAAs.
Toney Douglas (59), Florida State. Without Douglas, the Seminoles would be sub-NIT. He's been tremendous all season but was not fully appreciated until the ACC tournament, where the Seminoles' only double-digit scorer racked up three 20-point games.
Most Important Body PartsIf these things aren't working right, their teams are in trouble:
Ty Lawson's toe (60). The North Carolina point guard spent the ACC tournament in a walking cast of sorts to heal his big toe, a wise move by the Tar Heels. They'll need the engine behind their up-tempo attack to play at 100 percent if they're going to win a national title.
Chester Frazier's hand (61). All the Illini say their fiercely competitive defensive stopper will play in the NCAAs, a week after breaking his hand in practice and having surgery. The Minutes will wait and see before believing.
Darren Collison's tailbone (62). The UCLA point guard played through the bruised tailbone in the Pac-10 tournament with unimpressive results. He was pretty good in the first round against Washington State but disastrous in the second round against USC, going 1-for-9 from the field and committing seven turnovers. Bruins coach Ben Howland has already said he's hoping for a Friday-Sunday draw to give Collison an extra day's recovery time.
Jonny Flynn's legs (63). The Syracuse guard played more minutes in a weekend in Madison Square Garden than some guys play in a month. Will he be recovered enough for the Big Dance, or is this 2006 all over again? That year, the Orange went on an inspired run to win the Big East tourney but had nothing the following week and were upset in their first NCAA game.
DeJuan Blair' biceps (64). They feel fine and work well -- but can Blair rein in his physical play if Pittsburgh winds up in a tightly called game? After a season of brawling in the paint in the Big East, it could be difficult.
Nine Who Can Win It All In '09Connecticut. The Huskies have the ultimate interior deterrent in Hasheem Thabeet, and the combination of Thabeet and Jeff Adrien on the glass means opponents will have to work incredibly hard to prevent second-chance points or get any offensive rebounds. Senior A.J. Price hits big shots and, when he's making good decisions, is a stellar point guard. Freshman Kemba Walker can break down a defense. Stanley Robinson is the athletic X factor. The question is whether UConn can overcome the loss of wingman Jerome Dyson and end its recent string of inglorious tourney exits.
Duke. This is a tougher, more athletic and more experienced Blue Devils team than the past two, which were bounced rather rudely by VCU and West Virginia. Gerald Henderson has played at an elite level most of the season, and he has plenty of offensive support from Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler. Duke is better able to guard the perimeter this season, and if it can hold its own inside against elite opponents, could show up in Detroit.
Gonzaga. The Minutes isn't convinced the Zags have the requisite toughness to grind out a close, low-scoring, defense-and-rebounding game against a physical opponent. But the talent Mark Few has assembled is impressive and Gonzaga is on a major roll at the right time. They won't go into many (if any) games outmanned.
Kansas. Championship experience for Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich has helped catapult them to standout seasons in starring roles. The surrounding cast is young, but very talented. And Self can coach more freely this time around. It's tough to love a team that lost two of its last three games to Texas Tech and Baylor, but there's at least a lot to like about the Big 12 regular-season champions.
Louisville. Nobody plays better defense than the Cardinals, who disrupt dribblers with their quick hands and alter shots with their length. Nobody has a more versatile player than senior forward Terrence Williams. Nobody has the perfect player to match up with Clark. And nobody has a better tournament coach than Pitino.
Memphis. The hottest team in the country, and it's not even close. And in classic John Calipari fashion, he's ceaselessly playing the no-respect card over the reticence in some corners to award the Tigers a No. 1 seed. Memphis is athletic, long, relentless and has the same Final Four confidence experience as the Jayhawks going for it. This is a very dangerous team whose only worry is whether it can even remember what it's like to play a high-level opponent.
North Carolina. The Tar Heels have the most talent -- and the most experienced talent -- which is a fine place to start. When in doubt -- and everyone should have some doubt after this regular season -- it's never a bad thing to go with what your gut says is the best team. If Lawson is healthy, the only major concern is whether the Heels will guard with true zeal for six straight games. Oh, and the Uptight Roy Factor.
Pittsburgh. The Panthers looked like national championship material in dominating UConn twice and have three of the very best in the nation at their crucial positions: Blair inside, Sam Young on the wing and Levance Fields at the point. They will guard and board until the last dog dies. They can score better than any Pitt team of recent vintage. The one thing the Panthers have not done is get there before, and that's a factor. Especially with the coach.
Villanova (65). Wild-card pick based on the inside-out production of Dante Cunningham and Scottie Reynolds, the solid coaching of Jay Wright and the commitment to guard for the full 40 just about every game. But Reynolds needs to be hitting from the perimeter or this team can sometimes struggle for baskets.
The One Who Will Win It AllLouisville. Pitino becomes the first coach to win NCAA titles at two schools. And the intolerable cruelty only intensifies in Lexington.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.