Commentary

Minutes: 10 teams that can win it all

Originally Published: January 26, 2010
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (outspoken Facebook accounts subject to cancellation in Lawrence, Kan.):

First things first: There should be renewed hope in Evanston, Ill., today. If the Saints can make the Super Bowl, Northwestern (1) can make the Big Dance. All things are now possible.

Who dat … who dat … who dat say dey gonna beat dem Wildcats?

(The second-best journalism school in America might want to clean up the grammar when applying that to its basketball program.)

Ten that can win it all

By the end of January, the best teams have pretty well identified themselves, so The Minutes has settled on nine solid potential national champions. And one flier. And left one blueblood out. Here's the list (RPI numbers taken from Joe Lunardi's InsideRPI):

Kentucky (2). Why the Wildcats can win it: Having the best talent is a nice place to start. Having a coach who has been to two Final Fours* helps as well (*not that he got to keep them). Kentucky is big, athletic and nasty -- and is 5-0 in games decided by five points or fewer or in overtime. UK is remarkably adept at winning the close ones, despite its youth. That youth is also a reason why the Cats have room to get even better.

Why they might not: They're the least-tested team on this list, so far having faced just one team in the RPI top 40 and five in the top 100. The early schedule featured several big-name opponents that have slumped. There will be several teams more seasoned come March.

Record against RPI top 50: 2-0.

Record against RPI top 100: 5-0.

[+] EnlargeCole Aldrich
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelCole Aldrich attempted only five shots against Mizzou on Monday, but recorded 12 points, 16 boards and 7 blocks in the blowout win.

Kansas (3). Why the Jayhawks can win it: They have an elite, big-shot-making point guard (Sherron Collins) and a center who can control the paint against just about anyone (Cole Aldrich). They have an armada of athletic parts in between (Xavier Henry, the Morris twins, Tyshawn Taylor, Brady Morningstar, etc.). They also have a coach with a recent national championship ring.

Why they might not: The Jayhawks sometimes forget Aldrich is alive, and he sometimes fails to remind them. (He's averaging just seven field goal attempts per game.) It is reasonable to wonder where Taylor's head is, after he injured himself fighting a KU football player in the fall and then allegedly griped about his role on Facebook last week -- before his page disappeared into the ether.

Record against RPI top 50: 6-1.

Record against RPI top 100: 8-1.

Texas (4). Why the Longhorns can win it: They have size and athleticism comparable to Kentucky and Kansas, and perhaps even more depth. Damion James is a future pro who presents a matchup problem to just about everyone. Backcourt depth and quickness can wear down opponents.

Why they might not: Rick Barnes has never inspired the utmost confidence, and his team's shaky two weeks at the top of the polls makes The Minutes wonder how it will handle the pressure of March and April. Avery Bradley, J'Covan Brown and Jordan Hamilton have jacked up 516 shots among them -- which means a lot of the offense is in the hands of occasionally fickle freshmen.

Record against RPI top 50: 3-2.

Record against RPI top 100: 6-2.

Michigan State (5). Why the Spartans can win it: Seven players in the rotation were key parts of their 2009 run to the national championship game, and guard Kalin Lucas apparently has gotten the leadership message his coach sent a while back. Izzo is as good a coach as there is in the country, and you know his teams will rebound and defend until the last dog dies. Their 7-0 Big Ten start shows that Sparty is locking in right on time.

Why they might not: Michigan State doesn't have anyone taller than 6-foot-8 in the regular rotation, which could eventually create a problem despite the surplus of biceps in Izzo's lineup. The Spartans also could find themselves a step slower than some elite competition.

Record against RPI top 50: 2-1.

Record against RPI top 100: 7-3.

Purdue (6). Why the Boilermakers can win it: Given Michigan State's obsessive drive to reach the Final Four in its home state last year, the same dynamic could work in Purdue's favor in Indianapolis this year. The Boilers' big three of Robbie Hummel, E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson can play with anybody's. Chris Kramer is an annoyance to any and all guards. And coach Matt Painter said Monday that injured point guard Lewis Jackson -- the missing ingredient thus far for the 16-3 Boilers -- is very close to being ready to play.

Why they might not: There remains a chance that Jackson will never be 100 percent, or that he'll choose to redshirt this season. ("He has to understand that if he gets knocked out after two games, that's his year," Painter said. "That's his season. We have to paint a couple worst-case scenarios for him so he understands.") Purdue's three-game losing streak earlier this month was enough to instill doubt. And it might be a lot to ask for a group of players and a coach who have never been to a Final Four to jump up and win it all.

Record against RPI top 50: 3-2.

Record against RPI top 100: 7-3.

[+] EnlargeScottie Reynolds
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeIn scoring 36 points at Louisville, Scottie Reynolds was 9-of-10 from the field and 5-of-5 from 3.

Villanova (7). Why the Wildcats can win it: Another team flush with Final Four experience after last year's run to Detroit. Nova might have the best collection of guards in the country, led by the clutch-shooting All-American Scottie Reynolds. Jay Wright's team already has four Big East road wins, including at Louisville, where they rallied from 17 points down to win going away. The return of Reggie Redding from first-semester disciplinary action rounds out a talented rotation.

Why they might not: Nova is (again) undersized, which leaves it open to being challenged inside and can lead to excessive fouling and chronic foul trouble. Might be too Reynolds-reliant, especially at crunch time.

Record against RPI top 50: 4-1.

Record against RPI top 100: 8-1.

Syracuse (8). Why the Orange can win it: Wes Johnson gives them an elite-level player, which is a necessity. Their 2-3 zone is even more effective than usual -- long and active outside and very difficult to penetrate. It's not Jim Boeheim's first rodeo. They're shooting a remarkable 53 percent as a team. Like Villanova, they're 4-0 on the road in the Big East.

Why they might not: A bit underwhelming at point guard, and turnover-prone as a team. (Twenty-two percent of their possessions end in turnovers, according to Ken Pomeroy's numbers.) Stop The Minutes if you've heard this before, but Syracuse isn't great at the foul line (65 percent).

Record against RPI top 50: 4-1.

Record against RPI top 100: 12-1.

Georgetown (9). Why the Hoyas can win it: Greg Monroe is playing like the budding star he was billed to be out of high school in 2008. He didn't play well against Syracuse, but the 6-11 sophomore is a solid scorer, an aggressive rebounder and an underrated passer. Monroe has capable co-stars in leading scorer Austin Freeman and fellow guard Chris Wright. The Hoyas take good shots and make them -- and John Thompson III has loosened the reins a bit. His team scored more than 70 points in five straight Big East games before Monday, something it hasn't done since 2007, when Georgetown made the Final Four.

Why they might not: This is a six-man rotation -- if someone gets hurt, the Hoyas are toast. Thompson might be too dogmatic for his own good, often refusing to alter the system to fit the situation. The Hoyas don't foul much, but they don't get to the line much, either, averaging just 19 free-throw attempts per game. The way they played at Syracuse on Monday -- at least in the final 35 minutes -- didn't inspire visions of April splendor in Indianapolis.

Record against RPI top 50: 4-3.

Record against RPI top 100: 8-4.

[+] EnlargeBob Huggins
Brett Hansbauer/US PresswireIn his lengthy career, Bob Huggins has coached in only one Final Four. Can Devin Ebanks and Da'Sean Butler send him to a second?

West Virginia (10). Why the Mountaineers can win it: This typical Bob Huggins team is tough, thick, athletic and willing to maul opponents on the offensive glass. They have a clutch shot-maker in Da'Sean Butler and a next-level talent in Devin Ebanks. Point guard Joe Mazzulla, out virtually all last year with injury, is gradually rounding into table-setting form and is starting to provide a solid complement to sophomore Truck Bryant.

Why they might not: A typical Bob Huggins team usually flames out well before the Final Four -- his one and only visit was in 1992. Ebanks can be a high-maintenance, hit-or-miss guy -- seven turnovers against Mississippi, 22 points and 17 rebounds three nights later against Seton Hall. Butler was 14-for-47 in the Mountaineers' three losses.

Record against RPI top 50: 3-2.

Record against RPI top 100: 8-3.

Now, the flier:

BYU (11). Why the Cougars can win it: Impressively efficient offensive team that shoots extremely well from the field (55 percent from 2-point range, 41 percent from 3) and phenomenally from the foul line (77.4 percent, best in the nation). They take care of the ball, too, and play better-than-suspected defense. Guard Jimmer Fredette might be the most underrated player in the country. (You'll read more about him below.) They've already played 10 road or neutral-site games, winning nine of them.

Why they might not: Can a school that hasn't won an NCAA tournament game since 1993 suddenly jump up and win six? Doubtful.

Record against RPI top 50: 2-0.

Record against RPI top 100: 8-1.

And the one left out:

Duke (12). Why the Blue Devils can't win it: We've seen this movie before. Duke blazes impressively out of the gates, is confronted by its limitations (size, depth or athleticism) in the latter third of the regular season, then hits the wall in March. The Devils haven't won more than two games in an NCAA tournament since 2004, despite having No. 1 seeds twice and No. 2 seeds twice as well.

This is yet another good Duke team, with yet another set of apparent flaws. The big men (the young Plumlee brothers, Lance Thomas, Brian Zoubek) are still nothing special. The leading men, Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler, are still overworked. (Scheyer hasn't played fewer than 36 minutes in a game since December, and Singler has gone the full 40 in each of Duke's last two games.)

The Minutes will believe Duke might have a chance to win it all when it sees the Blue Devils actually advance past the Sweet 16 for the first time since Chris Duhon was in uniform.

Out-of-body experience

[+] EnlargeJudd
AP Photo/ James CrispThe Kentucky mascot had an out-of-body experience earlier this month at Rupp Arena.

Just about everyone who has ever played the game has had a moment at some level of play, however brief, when they were touched by the basketball gods: when you couldn't miss. You're always open, the basket is huge, the ball is coming off your hand as if trailing stardust on its way through the net, and Ashley Judd (13) is cheering every time you score.

For the gifted, that moment recurs frequently. For everyone else, you take it where you can find it, and you never forget it.

The patron saints of the career game: Harold Jensen, Villanova, 1985. Jensen was an unremarkable guard when he went 5-for-5 from the field and 4-for-5 from the line in Nova's epic 66-64 upset of Georgetown in the national title game. Just three games earlier, Jensen had gone 0-for-5 in the Wildcats' Sweet 16 win. He clearly picked his spot well for a career game.

This year's career-game nominees:

John Hart (14), Purdue. When the desperate Boilermakers visited Illinois last week, they were on a three-game losing streak and Hart was on a six-game DNP streak. But when Painter trashed the normal rotation and put the freshman guard in, the career 1.7 ppg scorer responded with 14 vital points in 18 minutes.

"When you go 14-0 [as Purdue did to start the year], you don't really want to mess with anything," Painter said. "… When we lost three straight, I thought it was time to give that next guy in line a shot at it.

"I think it really put some guys on alert. I like a set rotation, but I also like guys to feel some uncertainty. If it made guys feel the hair stand up on their necks and play harder, great."

Jamel Jackson (15), Seton Hall. There is no team shooters like to see coming more than defense-optional VMI -- but Jackson was an extreme case. He made 12 of 15 3-pointers against the Keydets and 14 of 17 shots total, scoring 40 points. He also had six assists and four steals. Since then, Jackson has scored a total of 28 points, three assists and one steal in 10 games. His season average is 6.5 points per game.

Dorenzo Hudson (16), Virginia Tech. Seton Hall was on the receiving end of a career game from Hudson, a junior who averages 12.8 points per game but erupted for 41 on the Pirates in Cancun. Hudson made just nine field goals but established residency at the foul line, making 20 of 21 free throws. In five games since then, he's shot a total of 13 free throws.

Jimmer Fredette (17), BYU. The previously mentioned Fredette has been an important Cougar for three seasons, but what he did against Arizona on Dec. 28 dwarfed his previous production. Fredette scored a school-record 49 points (on the road), hitting nine 3s and adding seven rebounds and nine assists.

Dominique Jones (18), South Florida. The underexposed junior guard knows his way to the hoop -- he'd had eight career 30-point games before Saturday. But what he did against Providence was extraordinary. Jones dropped 46 points on the Friars, tied for the third-highest single-game total in the nation this year. The fact that Jones added 10 rebounds, eight assists and three steals probably makes it the premier stat line in South Florida history, and one of the best in Big East history.

[+] EnlargeMustafa Abdul-Hamid
AP Photo/Gus RuelasEven on the West Coast, barely anyone had heard of Mustafa Abdul-Hamid before hitting this buzzer-beating shot against UW.

Rotnei Clarke (19), Arkansas. Bombarded Alcorn State for 51 in the season opener, still the highest single-game total in the nation this year. Clarke is a deluxe shooter with a quick release, which is how he hit 13 3s against the winless Braves. But Clarke can be stopped -- Kentucky just handcuffed him, holding him to 2-for-9 shooting from 3-point range.

And one career-moment nominee, following in the tradition of NC State's Lorenzo Charles in 1983:

Mustafa Abdul-Hamid (20), UCLA. The junior, a former walk-on, had spent his entire career filling out the layup line until the Bruins wound up short of talent and healthy bodies this season. Suddenly, a guy with 45 career points wound up with the ball in the final seconds against Washington last week, with UCLA down one. Abdul-Hamid squeezed off the winning jumper from the top of the key as time expired, vaulting from zero to hero in a flick of the wrist.

Rescuing the rookies

Not everyone can be John Wall. Some talented freshmen nationwide are feeling the grind of conference basketball -- precisely when their teams need the most out of them. A few frosh who need to elevate their play:

Lance Stephenson (21). He leads Cincinnati in scoring, but something strange happened to him during the Bearcats' key loss at Louisville on Sunday. Stephenson scored 12 points in the first 6 minutes and 2 seconds, almost single-handedly staking his team to an early 11-point lead. He scored zero in the next 33:58, and Cincy lost by 8. Stranger than that, he did not take a shot in the final 23 minutes -- and it wasn't as though he was sitting with foul trouble. Stephenson played 30 minutes. Whether his teammates quit looking for him or Stephenson quit trying, it was an odd performance that raises questions going forward.

The entire freshman class at North Carolina (22). The Tar Heels' touted quintet of freshmen -- John Henson, Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald, and brothers David and Travis Wear -- are combining to contribute just 18.8 points, 9.5 points and 4.6 assists per game. Fab Five they ain't. Henson in particular has been slow to adapt to the college game; he has a total of five points and seven turnovers in ACC play.

Brandon Paul (23). The Illinois guard opened his career with consecutive 20-point games, then had another 20-point night at Clemson in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. But he's made just 13 of 52 shots in Big Ten play, and just three of his last 18 from 3. (He's just part of a struggling team that has lost three straight games. Illinois coach Bruce Weber said Monday that the team had a players-only meeting that he hoped might help turn things around.)

Michael Snaer (24). The Florida State guard has been a consistent contributor to a team that is steadily building a solid NCAA résumé -- but it would help if the guard stopped turning the ball over. Snaer has two assists and 11 turnovers in ACC play, and the overall numbers are 18 assists and 41 turnovers.

Keith "Tiny" Gallon (25). The Oklahoma wide-body has yet to record an assist in conference play. His minutes have been curtailed in the Sooners' past three games, and he's averaged just five points and five rebounds in that time. Gallon fouled out in 16 minutes in Saturday's loss at Texas Tech.

Avery Bradley (26). He's been a distinct positive for Texas, but even great talents can hit a midwinter wall. After hitting 9 of 10 3s in wins over Arkansas, Colorado and Iowa State, he's made only 2 of 11 in three games since then. And he's committed more turnovers (5) than assists (4) and made just three of his last nine free throws.

Solomon Hill (27). Arizona has shown signs of life, winning three Pac-10 road games already, but if it wants to contend in that wide-open league, it could use a bit more from Hill. The 6-6 forward had six double-figure scoring games in nonconference play but has not scored more than six in a league game as Sean Miller has whittled down his minutes.

Coaching pressure gauge

[+] EnlargeJohn Pelphrey
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireJohn Pelphrey's Razorbacks have faced a host of off-the-court issues and are just 3-17 in SEC play over the last two seasons.

The Minutes watched Kentucky hand Arkansas its worst-ever SEC loss Saturday and left Rupp Arena wondering how the Razorbacks got so bad. The program stagnated in the final years under Nolan Richardson and did not get any better in five years with Stan Heath -- but John Pelphrey (28) has not done much to reassure the fan base that a return to glory is imminent.

Full disclosure: There are few people in college basketball The Minutes has enjoyed more than Pelphrey, having known him since he was a heady, overachieving forward at Kentucky in the late '80s and early '90s. But given his 3-17 record in Arkansas' last 20 SEC games, it seemed fair to inquire about Pelphrey's job security.

Arkansas media members believe he will be back next year for a fourth season. That's fair. After all, he's the only Arkansas coach to win an NCAA tournament game this century. After that, though, it will be time to produce.

With that in mind, The Minutes has identified one coach in each of the power-six conferences who may not have the luxury of waiting until next year to show their bosses something:

ACC -- Sidney Lowe (29), NC State. His league record over three-plus seasons stands at a dismal 17-37, with zero NCAA tournament bids. Lowe's predecessor, the much-pilloried Herb Sendek, looks like Dean Smith by comparison.

Big 12 -- There might not be a coach fully on the griddle in this league, but Nebraska's Doc Sadler (30) could use a reversal of fortune over the next six weeks. Sadler has improved the Cornhuskers' league record by one game every year -- from 6-10 to 7-9 to 8-8 -- but this year has started 0-4 in Big 12 play. The school's first NCAA bid since '98 doesn't seem likely this year.

Big East -- Fred Hill (31), Rutgers. This honor would go to Jerry Wainwright at DePaul, but they've already whacked him. Hill will be next. His Scarlet Knights are 0-7 in the league and are a gruesome 8-51 in his tenure.

Big Ten -- Ed DeChellis (32), Penn State. Time to find out whether they actually care about basketball in Happy Valley. If they do, DeChellis is probably a short-timer; he's into his seventh season without an NCAA bid in sight. With guard Talor Battle returning from last year's NIT champions, there was some hope -- but an 0-7 Big Ten start has extinguished it.

Pac-10 -- Ernie Kent (33), Oregon. Kent has taken the Ducks to their best NCAA performances since the Tall Firs won the first tournament in 1939 -- but there hasn't been much good in between those high points. After making the final eight in 2002, Oregon went 32-40 in the league over the next four years. Since making the final eight in '07, the Ducks are 13-30 in the Pac-10 -- and that's despite recruiting assistance from the world's greatest "person of influence," William Wesley.

SEC -- Jeff Lebo (34), Auburn. Zero NCAA bids his first five years, little hope for one here in year six. With a new arena scheduled to open next season, there figures to be a new coach working in it.

Minutes crush of the week

Who among us cannot love a 6-foot-7, 310-pound 3-point shooter? Wrap your arms (partway) around Milwaukee's Round Mound from Downtown, James "Big Lumber" Eayrs (35) -- a fan favorite for obvious reasons.

[+] EnlargeJames Eayrs
AP Photo/Michael ConroyDon't worry about his size. "Big Lumber" Eayrs will shoot it from anywhere, thank you very much.

In 52 games as a Panther, Eayrs has hoisted 222 3-pointers, making 70. He might be the most rotund perimeter shooter since Dwight "Fat Flight" Stewart was jacking jumpers for Arkansas in its mid-'90s heyday.

Like many big men, Eayrs is a point guard trapped in an offensive tackle's body. He said he grew about five inches one year in high school, and the pounds came with the inches until he'd outgrown the backcourt.

But the fact is, this is the slimmer, trimmer Eayrs, who is averaging 12 points and 6.2 rebounds for the 12-9 Panthers. He used to be Bigger Lumber -- up to around 350 pounds during his high school days in Roseville, Minn. Eayrs started trimming down as a senior and continued to do so at junior college in North Dakota. Now, he says, he eats prudently but still has an abiding weakness for Chipotle burritos.

"I'm still a fanatic for those," he said. "That's the one thing I can't give up."

He's also a fanatic for the Minnesota Vikings -- which made Monday a pretty miserable day to be living in Packers territory, where most didn't mind seeing Brett Favre throw a season-ending interception while wearing another uniform.

"I'm crushed," Eayrs said. "That was terrible. I'm hearing it from everyone, especially the coaching staff. They're diehard Packer fans. I'm going to hear it for a couple more weeks."

Hopefully that won't affect Eayrs' shooting. It surely won't affect his eating.

Twitter star

Ohio State walk-on Mark Titus (36), who can be found on Twitter under his nom de blog, Clubtrillion. Titus is the humorous bench jockey who writes a blog titled Club Trillion (a trillion being what someone's box score looks like if they play one minute and record zero statistical contributions). He brings some of that same wit to Twitter. Among last week's tweets:

"I want to wish a happy birthday to my good friend Greg Oden today. I hope your next 40 years are just as much fun as your first 40 were."

And this Sunday night, from the diehard Vikings and Cubs fan:

"Two most painful days in my life as a sports fan were caused by S. Bartman and G. Hartley. I'm more athletic than both of them. This blows."

Coach who earned his comp car this week

Georgia's Mark Fox (37) took over a struggling program and hasn't seemed to notice that the Bulldogs are supposed to be terrible. Fox's team drilled No. 8 Tennessee on Saturday and upset rival Georgia Tech a couple of weeks ago. In between, UGA played Kentucky closer than anyone else has to date in the SEC, and they lost close games to Ole Miss and Mississippi State. At this rate, Georgia has a shot at a wholly unlikely .500 league record.

Coach who should ride the bus to work this week

Air Force's Jeff Reynolds (38) is riding a 21-game losing streak in Mountain West Conference regular-season games. The Falcons haven't come closer than nine points yet this season, as the school's relative halcyon days from 2003 to '07 recede further from view.

The Minutes' non-obvious game of the week

Harvard at Cornell (39), Saturday in Ithaca, N.Y. Seriously -- an Ivy League game absolutely worth monitoring. The Big Red are No. 41 in the RPI. The Crimson are No. 59. It is not inconceivable that the league could be gunning for two teams in the Big Dance. But with that far from certain, and given the Ivy League's lack of a postseason tournament, the two meetings between these teams will be critical in deciding who gets the automatic bid to the NCAAs.

Buzzer-beater

When thirsty in the ugly, lousy-weather town of Newport Beach, Calif., The Minutes highly recommends a visit to the Yard House (40) in the Fashion Island shopping compound (for lack of a better term). It boasts the world's largest selection of draft beers, and it might not be a hollow boast. And yes, they do come in yards, which are occasionally more easily spilled than sipped -- but they're fun to try.

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