Big dreams come in little packages
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball ("No trespassing" signs sold separately to the home pep squad at the KFC Yum! Center (1) ):
Check the calendar, start the madness
There can be only one explanation for a weekend crazier than Charlie Sheen on an interview binge. Only one plausible reason for a 48-hour span in which three top-five teams lose -- Texas (2) blowing a 22-point lead to a bubble team, Duke (3) scoring nine points in the final 11 minutes to relinquish a lead to a bubble team, and Pittsburgh (4) getting a miracle chance at a tie because of an overexuberant male cheerleader.
That explanation? It's time for March.
But before vaulting into the most wonderfully madcap month of the year -- and before handicapping the first wave of conference tournaments that make Championship Week a compelling prelude to the NCAA shebang -- let's first sort out the winners and losers from a frantic February.
In golf tournament jargon, Saturday is moving day -- the day the contenders and pretenders sort themselves out for the final charge to the finish. In college basketball, February is moving month. Here's where we stand now that it's over:
WINNER: The Big East (5). At the beginning of the month, there was an outside chance that the league could land a record 11 NCAA bids. At the end of the month, it looks like a solid 11. That's due to the sensational surge by St. John's, plus the refusal to fold by bubble teams Cincinnati, Marquette and West Virginia. The Red Storm have won six in a row, three over ranked opponents, and could possibly vault all the way from the bubble to a top-four NCAA seed. Meanwhile the Bearcats, Golden Eagles and Mountaineers all have scored recent résumé-solidifying victories: Cincinnati over Louisville (home) and Georgetown (road), Marquette over Connecticut on the road and West Virginia over Notre Dame at home. Now the question is seeding: Could the league actually corral six of the top 16 seeds? It's not out of the question.
LOSER: The Big 12 (6). A month ago, the league was looking at locking down two No. 1 seeds in Kansas and Texas. But the Longhorns have lost three of their past four games and have played their way down to a No. 2 or 3 seed heading into the Big 12 tourney. Meanwhile, Texas A&M and Missouri also have likely descended the seeding ladder. It's true that the Big 12 has firmed up a bid for resurgent Kansas State and perhaps wedged Baylor into the field as well, but neither of those teams is where it expected to be entering the season.
WINNER: The Mountain West (7). Two months after watching TCU win the Rose Bowl, America's best B-list league now has BYU poised for the 12-year-old conference's first No. 1 NCAA tournament seed. That's an incredible run.
LOSER: The Mountain West. Both TCU and BYU are leaving the league in the near future. The Cougars are bolting for independent status in football and the West Coast Conference in all other sports in 2011. The Horned Frogs are headed to the Big East in 2012.
WINNER: The Power Elite (8), if you go by Joe Lunardi's Monday Bracketology. According to Joey Brackets, bids No. 66, 67 and 68 currently would go to Michigan, Alabama and Baylor. More bids for middling teams from high-profile conferences -- just the way we suspected it would play out.
LOSER: Villanova (9). Not everyone in the Big East loved February. The Wildcats went a collapsible 4-5 on the month, capping it off by being blown out of South Bend by a Notre Dame team going the opposite direction. They close at Pitt, which means they're likely to limp into the postseason with a 9-9 Big East record. This conjures up memories of last year when Nova lost six of its last nine games, including upsets in its first Big East tourney game and second NCAA game.
WINNER: Seth Greenberg (10). On Saturday night, the Virginia Tech coach might have moved out of his longtime dwelling on the thinnest part of the bubble with an upset of No. 1 Duke. If the Hokies take care of business at home Tuesday against Boston College, they should have enough in the bank to secure their first NCAA bid since 2007. For Greenberg, it would be his third bid in the past 16 years and should theoretically force a different NIT-bound coach to be the go-to Face of Rejection for the media after the bracket is revealed. (Then again, if Seth is truly addicted to drama, Tech will drop the game against BC and then lose on the road at Clemson, backsliding into bubble anxiety for the ACC tourney.)
LOSER: The Pac-10 (11). The league tried to fool us into thinking it had a quality team or two. It tried to sell us Washington, and look at the Huskies now: 19-9 overall, 6-8 away from home, with three losses to teams with RPI of 100 or lower. Then it tried to sell us on Arizona, and look at the Wildcats now: swept in Los Angeles over the weekend, pretty much killing a chance at a top-four NCAA seed. The current sell is UCLA. The Minutes isn't buying. This league will be lucky if it gets three teams in the Dance.
WINNER: Harrison Barnes (12). Entering February, the most touted freshman in the country was just crawling out of a fairly miserable start to his college career. Exiting February, he's become a major force for surging North Carolina, averaging 17 points and 6.8 rebounds for the month. Barnes still didn't shoot great percentages for the month (less than 50 percent from 2-point range and less than 33 percent from 3-point), but his improvement helps make Carolina a dangerous March team.
LOSER: Conference USA (13). The league may have played its way into single-bid status with a rocky month rife with damaging losses for its leading teams. UAB is the leader at the moment, but is a robust 0-5 against RPI top-50 competition. Underachieving Memphis remains on the at-large bubble but needs to win some games and perhaps get some help from losses by other bubble teams. Southern Miss needs to win the league tourney. So does UTEP, which continues to be an embarrassment for the hiring and coddling of Teflon Tim Floyd. The school held its breath until Floyd somehow escaped a show-cause penalty from the NCAA for the O.J. Mayo disgrace that went on under his watch at USC. Last week, Teflon Tim put on a pro wrestling display at East Carolina -- ejected, restrained by officials from going after one referee in particular, and finally herded off the court by a cop. In a league with a stern commissioner, that would warrant a one-game suspension. In C-USA, Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man Britton Banowsky issued a reprimand. Teflon Tim rolls on most likely to the NIT.
WINNER: The Atlantic 10 (14). Xavier has won seven straight games. Temple's only loss in February was at Duke. Richmond's only loss was to Temple, as the Spiders tenaciously cling to the right side of the bubble. The decline of Duquesne is the only bad news for the upper echelon of the league in the past month, and the Dukes were overdue for a reality check anyway.
LOSER: Home-court outside influences (15). No, not the usual college basketball outside influences -- no agents, no posse, no AAU coaches. The Minutes is talking about the supporting cast in the arena, and the supporting cast caused its share of trouble in February. On Feb. 12 at Wisconsin, a student ran out of the stands at a dead ball in the final 20 seconds of the Badgers' victory over Ohio State and hugged guard Jordan Taylor -- kid thought the game was over. On Feb. 18 at Louisville, the Cardinals band started the old "bullspit" cheer in response to a foul call on guard Preston Knowles -- and when Knowles gestured for more and louder from the band, he was banged with a T. Then there was the Louisville cheerleader who was T'd up Sunday in the final second against Pittsburgh. For all the folks on the periphery: Stick to clapping, screaming and holding up giant heads, please.
WINNER: Jimmer Fredette (16). He'd just established himself as the national player of the year leader heading into February. Seven straight victories and 185 points later, he's the prohibitive favorite.
LOSER: Ashton Gibbs (17). The Pittsburgh guard became the latest Twitter twit by churlishly announcing via social media Sunday that the Panthers shouldn't have lost to "them bums" from Louisville. His next tweet was taken down: "F--- it. On to the next one." In its place was an apology so carefully crafted that you could almost see the sports information director's fingers typing it. That probably wasn't the wisest expression of free speech coming off a 3-for-11 clunker performance.
WINNER: Matt Painter (18). The Purdue coach is The Minutes' choice for national coach of the year to date. That can still change. But the fact that the Boilermakers are where they are (24-5 overall, 13-3 in the Big Ten, still chasing Ohio State for the league title, in line for a No. 2 NCAA seed) after losing star forward Robbie Hummel to a knee injury on the first day of practice is incredible. There is plenty of quality competition (Mike Brey, Rick Pitino and Steve Lavin of the Big East all come to mind, plus Thad Matta, Rick Barnes, Mike Krzyzewski, Dave Rose and Steve Fisher) but Painter is the leader after a 6-1 February.
LOSER: Coastal Carolina (19). On Feb. 1, the Chanticleers were 20-2 and undefeated in Big South play. On March 1, the Chanticleers are 26-4, 16-2 in the Big South and the subject of a New York Times story about an ongoing NCAA investigation of Cliff Ellis' program. Coastal is down to seven scholarship players. Ellis, who oversaw programs that were put on probation at both Clemson and Auburn -- but was not named in the violations -- is rattling his saber about suing the Times. Call The Minutes when you file something, Cliff.
WINNER: Mediocre teams everywhere (20). With the additional bids, the softness of the bubble this year and the remarkable number of teams who have wheezed their way through February, just about every decent team is getting in. If your team doesn't make it, there is no valid excuse. We don't want to hear your Selection Sunday lamentations. You had your chances.
The Little Dance
The NCAA tournament starts today -- Tuesday, March 1. You heard The Minutes right. Every team that is eligible for its conference tournament has a chance to win it all.
By The Minutes' count, there are 318 teams still alive for the national championship. Yes, that number includes mighty Towson (21). The Tigers may be 4-25 overall and 0-18 in the Colonial Athletic Association, but think about it: All they need to do is win 10 straight games -- four in the CAA tourney, six in the NCAAs -- and they're cutting down the nets in Reliant Stadium.
They've got a chance. Dream big, Tigers. And everyone else who gets to lace 'em up for at least one more shot. Regardless of bubble status, starting today you've got a chance to play your way in.
Here is The Minutes' breakdown of the 15 conference tourneys that begin this week. Next week, we'll preview the other 15 (there is no tournament for the Ivy League):
America East (22). March 3-12 at various sites.
Top seed: Vermont.
Minutes tourney champ prediction: Boston U.
Storyline: The Catamounts have the top seed, but lost twice to the second-seeded Terriers -- most recently at home to close the regular season. Boston has won eight straight heading into this tourney, but has to exorcise its postseason demons. The Terriers haven't won the league tourney since 2002, despite having some good teams since then.
Sagarin conference rank: 29th out of the 31 that receive automatic bids.
Last time league champ won an NCAA tourney game: 2005, when 13th-seeded Vermont stunned Syracuse.
Atlantic Sun (23). March 2-5 in Macon, Ga.
Top seed: Belmont.
Minutes tourney champ prediction: Belmont.
Storyline: The Bruins went 19-1 in the league and 27-4 overall, but that doesn't mean the semifinal game won't be tricky. They'll either be facing rival Lipscomb, which handed them their lone league loss, or Mercer on its home floor. Still hard to see Belmont losing.
Sagarin conference rank: 21st of 31.
Last time league champ won an NCAA tourney game: 2001, when the league was known as the Trans-America Athletic Conference and champion Georgia State beat Wisconsin as a No. 11 seed.
Big Sky (24). March 5-9 at various sites.
Top seed: TBD. League plays through Wednesday and three teams remain in the picture: Northern Colorado, Montana and Weber State.
Minutes tourney champ prediction: Northern Colorado.
Storyline: Home court has been vital in the Big Sky, which makes picking a winner here dicey until we know who wins the regular season -- because that team will host the semifinals and finals. So it's a coin flip for now.
Sagarin conference rank: 23rd out of 31.
Last time league champ won an NCAA tourney game: 2006, when 12th-seeded Montana upset Nevada.
Big South (25). March 1-5 at various sites.
Top seed: Coastal Carolina.
Minutes tourney champ prediction: North Carolina-Asheville.
Storyline: The off-court travails of the Chanticleers are clearly the dominant news here. It affected their finish to the regular season, losing two of their final four, yet they've still got home-court advantage. Can they win with a depleted roster? And if they do, how will the rest of the conference feel about it?
Sagarin conference rank: 22th out of 31.
Last time league champ won an NCAA tourney game: Winthrop beat Notre Dame in 2007 as a No. 11 seed.
Colonial Athletic (26). March 4-7 in Richmond, Va.
Top seed: George Mason.
Minutes tourney champ: George Mason.
Storyline: The Patriots are a runaway freight train, riding a 15-game winning streak into this event. They've probably locked up an at-large berth; will that dull their competitive fire in Richmond? If so, they're not unbeatable. But the bet here is that Mason remains on point and on a roll.
Sagarin conference rank: 11th out of 31.
Last time league champ won an NCAA tourney game: Last year 11th-seeded Old Dominion defeated Notre Dame.
Horizon (27). March 1-8 at various sites.
Top seed: Milwaukee (split regular-season title with Butler, Cleveland State).
Minutes tourney champ prediction: Butler.
Storyline: Just when everyone was ready to write off the Bulldogs after three straight losses dropped them to 6-5 in the league, they regained their form. Butler has won seven straight to close the regular season, earning a No. 2 seed, a double-bye into the semifinals and a possible date with No. 3 Cleveland State -- a team the Bulldogs have beaten twice this season. Milwaukee closed on a roll of its own, winning nine straight league games, but the March experience advantage goes to Butler.
Sagarin conference rank: 10th out of 31.
Last time league champ won an NCAA tourney game: Butler last year. You may have heard something about it.
Metro Atlantic (28). March 4-7 in Bridgeport, Conn.
Top seed: Fairfield.
Minutes tourney champ prediction: Rider.
Storyline: Fairfield took heavy favorite Siena into overtime last year in the MAAC final before falling, and will be hungry to finish the job this time around playing at home. But the Stags are not invincible there, losing once already this year to Rider.
Sagarin conference rank: 16th of 31.
Last time league champ won an NCAA tourney game: In 2009, Siena took down Ohio State in double overtime as a No. 9 seed.
Missouri Valley (29). March 3-6 in St. Louis.
Top seed: Missouri State.
Minutes tourney champ prediction: Wichita State.
Storyline: The Bears won their first-ever regular-season championship, but the Shockers appear to have the easier path through Arch Madness. Wichita is 8-0 against the teams on its side of the bracket. If it reaches the final, it doesn't want to see Missouri State, which beat Wichita twice -- but The Minutes suspects that Northern Iowa might take care of the Bears before then. If there is a UNI-Wichita rematch of last year's final, hide the women and children. It will be intense.
Sagarin conference rank: 14th of 31.
Last time league champ won an NCAA tourney game: Does the name Ali Farokhmanesh ring a bell? Northern Iowa, seeded ninth, rather memorably shot down No. 1 seed Kansas in the second round last year.
Northeast (30). March 3-9 at various campus sites.
Top seed: Long Island.
Minutes tourney champ prediction: Long Island.
Storyline: The up-tempo Blackbirds have lost just once since before Christmas, and that was a toss-out fluke to a St. Francis (Pa.) team that went on to lose 20 games. Long Island gets its chance at revenge for that defeat in the first round of this tourney and should race into the Big Dance for the first time since 1997.
Sagarin conference rank: 25th of 31.
Last time league champ won an NCAA tourney game: The league has never won a game that wasn't a play-in game.
Last one of those was Mount Saint Mary's in 2008.
Ohio Valley (31). March 2-5 in Nashville, Tenn.
Top seed: Murray State.
Minutes tourney champ prediction: Murray State.
Storyline: Once the Racers got down to business about five weeks ago, they took control of the conference. A rubber match pitting Murray's by-committee team against runner-up Morehead State and rebounding monster Kenneth Faried would be the perfect climax to this tourney.
Sagarin conference rank: 27th out of 31.
Last time league champ won an NCAA tourney game: Last year, when Murray upset Vanderbilt on a last-second shot by Danero Thomas.
Patriot (32). March 2-11 at various sites.
Top seed: Bucknell.
Minutes tourney champ prediction: Bucknell.
Storyline: This is a two-team league, with only the Bison and American having fewer than seven league losses or 14 losses overall. And even then you could argue that it's a one-team league, given Bucknell's two-game league cushion over American and sweep of the season series. It would be a major surprise to see this title game played anywhere but Bucknell, and the Bison have won 10 straight there.
Sagarin conference rank: 26th out of 31.
Last time league champ won an NCAA tourney game: Bucknell beat Arkansas in 2006 as a No. 9 seed.
Southern (33). March 4-7 in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Top seed: College of Charleston was the top seed from the South Division, and Western Carolina the top seed from the North.
Minutes tourney champ prediction: Davidson.
Storyline: Charleston and Wofford have the league's two best players in Andrew Goudelock and Noah Dahlman, respectively. Those two probably are the best teams as well. But this has the feel of a tournament capable of going haywire, and Davidson finished the regular season playing well.
Sagarin conference rank: 20th out of 31.
Last time league champ won an NCAA tourney game: Davidson made an unforgettable run to the Elite Eight in 2008 as a No. 10 seed.
Summit (34). March 5-8 in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Top seed: Oakland.
Minutes tourney champ prediction: Oakland.
Storyline: Behind center Keith Benson and point guard Reggie Hamilton, Oakland dominated the season, winning 17 of 18 league games. Oral Roberts finished the year on a roll and IUPUI dealt the Golden Grizzlies their only loss, but it would be a major shock if Oakland didn't win this tourney.
Sagarin conference rank: 17th out of 31.
Last time league champ won an NCAA tourney game: In the non-play-in department, 13th-seeded Valparaiso advanced to the 1998 Sweet 16 after Bryce Drew made a shot against Ole Miss that remains in heavy rotation on March Madness highlight reels. The conference was known as the Mid-Continent back then.
Sun Belt (35). March 5-8 in Hot Springs, Ark.
Top seed: Florida Atlantic.
Minutes tourney champ prediction: Louisiana-Lafayette.
Storyline: Could be the most wide-open tournament of them all this Championship Week. When Western Kentucky is down, the whole league is down -- and the erratic Hilltoppers are definitely down. In that vacuum there is plenty of opportunity, and Louisiana-Lafayette is the hottest team in the conference, riding an 11-game winning streak.
Sagarin conference rank: 24th out of 31.
Last time league champ won an NCAA tourney game: Western Kentucky beat Illinois in 2009 as a No. 12 seed.
West Coast (36). March 4-7 in Las Vegas.
Top seed: Saint Mary's (split regular-season title with Gonzaga).
Minutes tourney champ prediction: Saint Mary's.
Storyline: The Minutes was totally sold on the Gaels until they closed by losing three of their last four and Gonzaga closed powerfully. The two heavyweights of the league played two epic white-knuckle games in the regular season, and we should be headed to a third in Vegas.
Sagarin conference rank: 12th out of 31.
Last time league champ won an NCAA tourney game: Last year, when 10th-seeded Saint Mary's won two games behind Omar Samhan to reach the Sweet 16.
Coach who earned his comp car this week
BYU's Dave Rose (37). Yeah, he's got the probable national player of the year on his team -- but Rose has recruited and developed a good group to go with Fredette. That was obvious last weekend at San Diego State when Fredette was more of a passer in the second half and his teammates came through with big baskets for another big Cougars victory.
Coach who should find his own ride to work
Bruce Pearl (38) of Tennessee. Since he came back from an SEC-mandated timeout, his Volunteers are 2-4 in league play. They've lost their past two home games, the most recent one to massive underachiever Mississippi State. And oh yeah, Pearl was officially charged with major violations by the NCAA last week. Nice.
When in the bucolic burg of Murray (39), Ky. -- and trust The Minutes, you won't get there by accident -- try a bite to eat at the Big Apple Café (40). The barbecued pork is good, and The Minutes regrets not trying the homemade pimento cheese sandwich -- because, really, outside of Augusta National where are you going to get one of those? And you can even get a drink at the Big Apple, a relatively recent development in what used to be a dry county.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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