So you think you're a contender?
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (Ashley Judd (1) pompoms sold separately):
It's a big country, and rarely is it more enjoyably abundant than on a college basketball Saturday. Somewhere, at any given time, all hell is breaking loose.
This Saturday it broke loose out West. Twice. Two leading ESPY candidates for Comeback of the Year transpired on the same day.
You probably heard about UNLV (2) wiping out a 10-point deficit in the final 20 seconds of regulation against San Diego State (3), then winning in overtime. Credit the Rebels with a preposterous rally. Then remember that it came against noted non-tactician Steve Fisher (4), whose record at SDSU in overtime games is now 1-11. (Fab Five Fish had 44 percent free throw shooter Trimaine Davis on the floor in the final 30 seconds; he missed three out of four to facilitate the UNLV comeback. That's so bad it makes Carolina's butchered final play at Duke look good.)
You probably missed the other game, which didn't end until well after midnight on the East Coast. It was slightly less improbable but significantly more important.
Pacific (5), ranked No. 24, scored the final eight points in the final 23 seconds at Utah State (6) to win in regulation, 64-63. The Tigers retained their first-ever Top 25 ranking, earned the No.1 seed in the Big West tournament and beat Utah State in Logan for just the second time in 33 tries.
The Minutes caught up with still-giddy Pacific Sunday morning in Salt Lake City as it prepared to fly home to Stockton, Calif.
"We were talking about the UNLV game when we went over to the game in the bus," said Pacific's Christian Maraker (7), who would wind up a hero. "You can't believe what happened -- and then we do the same thing."
"Minor miracle," said 17-year Pacific coach Bob Thomason (8).
The situation looked bleak for the 20-2 Tigers, who were listening to chants of "over-rated!" from the Utah State fans with less than a minute to go. The Aggies fans, who watched their 18-6 team beat No. 15 Utah in Logan by 26 points earlier this season, were feeling chesty.
"I think that fired us up," Maraker said.
Down 63-56, Pacific's Mike Webb made a three-pointer with 22.6 seconds remaining. The Tigers called timeout and set up their press, and Maraker made a steal that led to a second Webb three and a 63-62 score. After Pacific took its final timeout, Maraker fouled Utah State's David Pak with 11 seconds left.
Pak missed both free throws. Maraker rebounded and passed to Marko Mihailic, who looked for Webb but found him double-teamed. Instead he passed to Tyler Newton, who started to drive to the basket and saw Maraker all alone just outside the foul line. He zipped it to Maraker, who drilled the jumper with four seconds left. A half-court shot by Utah State was no good, and Pacific's winning streak was somehow stretched to 16 games.
"I still have a hard time believing it," Maraker said.
"We gift-wrapped that baby and handed it to them," Utah State coach Stew Morrill told the Salt Lake Tribune.
Afterward the Tigers watched the final two minutes on the bus on their way to a late meal.
"Watching it, you almost don't know if we're going to win," Thomason said. "It's like, 'How is this going to work?' "
Even for a team that has won 20 of its last 21 games decided by single digits, this one was hard to believe. But it really happened, on a doubly wild day out West.
One of the most popular conspiracy theories in Hoopsworld says that Duke (9) gets all the calls. The Minutes, which retains a vivid memory of Jason Williams body-surfing on the back of Arizona's Jason Gardner in the 2001 national championship game without a whistle, has occasionally been inclined to agree.
But events at Maryland (10) Saturday night prove that Coach K (11) doesn't always own the stripes. The call that turned the game around went against Duke, and it was a bad one.
Guard Daniel Ewing had just made a layup that put the Blue Devils up nine with 9:44 to play. Turning to run downcourt, he bumped into Maryland's Ekene Ibekwe, who responded with an elbow to Ewing's chops. Ewing countered with a few sharp words and was promptly T'd up, while Ibekwe went unsanctioned.
The play killed Duke's momentum, sparked an 8-0 Maryland run and led to Ewing fouling out early in overtime -- a crippling blow to a team that had already lost Shelden Williams and Shavlik Randolph to fouls, and would eventually lose two more players after Ewing. Duke finished the game playing three walk-ons who looked like they'd be much more comfortable in Poli Sci 300 than on the floor against the Terrapins.
Give Maryland king-sized credit for winning the game and sweeping Duke. Credit Gary Williams for infusing his team with the absolute belief that it belongs on the same floor with Duke Almighty, give credit to Ibekwe for playing ferociously despite a cracked rib, and give credit to mercurial point guard John Gilchrist for playing his guts out.
But everyone who cries about Duke getting the calls -- a few thousand of whom live in Maryland -- should also acknowledge the T that turned this game around.
For bracket junkies, the precursor symptoms to Madness are starting to appear: sweaty palms, nervous twitches and insatiable curiosity about RPI numbers from the Colonial Athletic Association. (To answer the burning question: Old Dominion is your leader with an RPI of 27.)
This can only mean one thing -- Selection Sunday is just a month away. In anticipation, The Minutes provides a look at the current landscape through the prism of the recent past and makes five Unimpeachable Bracket Pronouncements. Keep these in mind four weeks from now, when the pairings sheets are in your hot little hands:
Of the last 64 Final Four teams, only three were unranked in the second AP poll of February: Wisconsin 2000 (12), North Carolina 2000 (13) and Mississippi State 1996 (14). None of the three advanced to the championship game.
In fact, you can pretty much cut off the rankings at No. 17 Monday and focus on those teams as Final Four possibilities. Fifty-eight of the last 64 teams to play on the season's final weekend were ranked 17th or higher at this point. In addition to the three listed above, the other crashers from outside the Top 17 were Indiana 2002 (15), which was ranked No. 22 at this point; Oklahoma State 1995 (16), also No. 22 at this juncture; and Cincinnati 1992 (17), which was No. 24.
Prominent teams that have been out of the rankings at some point this season: latecomer Boston College (18), which began the season unranked, Gonzaga (19), which slipped out for a week in December, and defending national runner-up Georgia Tech (20), which has hit the skids since the injury to B.J. Elder.
Only two eventual champs were ranked No. 1 at this point: Arkansas 1994 (26), which wound up losing in the SEC tournament semifinals and slipping to No. 2 heading into the tournament, and Duke 1992 (27), which was atop the polls all season.
Arizona 2003 (28) was No. 1 for 13 weeks but lost in a regional final to Kansas. Duke 2002 (29) was No. 1 for 14 weeks but lost in a regional semifinal to Indiana. Cincinnati 2000 (30) was No. 1 for 12 weeks but lost in the second round to Tulsa, after Player of the Year Kenyon Martin broke his leg the previous week.
There were some swell matchups on ESPN's just-concluded Rivalry Week, but The Minutes has a few more blood-boiling rivals to recommend for 2006:
Alabama vs. Mississippi State (31) -- Mark Gottfried and Rick Stansbury have had some bitter recruiting battles over the years, and things didn't look too chummy when Gottfried kept his starters on the floor until the final two minutes of a 49-point rout in Tuscaloosa last month. (And 'Bama isn't the only school that gets a little extra juiced at the sight of Stansbury. The guy went 14-2 in SEC play to win the regular-season title outright, but reportedly still finished third in Coach of the Year balloting -- which tells you a little about how his peers feel.)
Illinois-Chicago vs. Wisconsin-Milwaukee (32) -- Smaller schools, but the mother of all coaching feuds. UIC's Jimmy Collins and UWM's Bruce Pearl became mortal enemies while assistants at Illinois and Iowa, respectively, when Pearl turned in Collins to the NCAA for alleged recruiting violations. These days they play at least twice every year -- but never shake hands. "I have a family, and when all that stuff happened, it put my family through some hellish (expletive)," Collins told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel earlier this month. "... I think he does a hell of a job, but I'm not going to shake his hand. ... I don't like him and he don't like me."
Kentucky vs. Louisville (33) -- You want some heat for Rivalry Week? Try the most all-consuming rivalry in basketball, regardless of what anyone on Tobacco Road says. And that was before Rick Pitino changed colors and bounced it off the charts. Cat Nation vs. its former hero is a heated topic of discussion every day of the year in the hoops-addled commonwealth, with fresh argument fodder appearing almost weekly.
Montana vs. Montana State (34) -- It's called The Brawl of the Wild in Big Sky Country, although most fans simply refer to the rivalry (in any sport) as Cat-Griz. The Bozeman Chronicle reports that before the two played last month, a stuffed grizzly bear was hung over a doorway in the Montana State academic office with its eyes torn out. You get the picture.
Iowa State's Wayne Morgan (35) has beaten ranked opponents on consecutive weekends, winning at Texas on Feb. 5 and handling Texas Tech in Ames on Saturday. The Cyclones are 13-8 overall (5-5 in Big 12 play) and winners of their last five games. Morgan is 33-21 since arriving in a tough league, countering expectations that Iowa State might slide off the map after Larry Eustachy was fired.
Oklahoma's Kelvin Sampson (36). Sure, the schedule has been hard. But the Sooners have lost four of five, bottoming out with a loss at out-of-the-race Missouri. Oklahoma's perimeter players haven't been as effective in conference play, and the Sooners are letting Big 12 opponents shoot a healthy 46.7 percent from the floor.
This week: Louisville sharpie Taquan Dean (37) takes on Duke gunner J.J. Redick (38).
Last week: Charlotte's Brendan Plavich nipped Arizona's Salim Stoudamire by a single triple, nine to eight, in two games apiece. However, it should be noted that Stoudamire was a judicious 8-for-14 from three-point range, while Plavich was a more wanton 9-for-24.
... Baby Jordan, as he was overhyped in the late 1980s and early '90s. Anyone with information on the current whereabouts of former USC high-riser and Pac-10 Player of the Year Harold Miner (39) please advise The Minutes.
Meanwhile, The Minutes thanks all informants for updates on last week's APB subject, Missouri Band-Aid man Derrick Chievous. Mizzou's all-time leading scorer has been seen in the Columbia area in recent years, and made a few unwanted headlines in 2001 as a UPS worker arrested on suspicion of theft from the company. Chievous has reportedly agreed to play in a Final Four-related game April 1 in St. Louis pitting former Missouri players against former Illinois players, as a warmup game for the Harlem Globetrotters against a team of college all-stars.
The Minutes has to know: Was the chilling sight of an un-gelled Steve Lavin (40) last Wednesday night in the ESPN studios a mirage of some sort? Or was it real? Lav certainly appeared to be back to his 10W-40 cool the next night, so The Minutes cannot be sure that it really saw what it thought it saw. Until proven otherwise it will be chalked up as a hoops-induced hallucination, hopefully never to be repeated.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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