Champ Week preview (Part 2), awards
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (dance shoes sold separately to 68 lucky customers):
Get your Champ Week freak on
They're handing out NCAA tournament bids like candy these days -- eight of them so far, 60 more to go by Sunday night. And the going has gotten goofy already.
Of the eight automatic bids distributed to date, just one went to a No. 1 seed. Take a bow, Belmont (1), for avoiding the upset epidemic. It's been going around like you can't believe.
March pressure does funny things to teams, particularly favorites. Like Fairfield (2), which was the top seed in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference but fell behind fourth-seeded Saint Peter's 40-15 at halftime and lost by 14. At home. The Stags gagged.
Or Vermont (3), top seed in the America East. It lost by 22 to fifth-seeded Stony Brook, a team it beat by 23 exactly one month earlier. The Catamounts went catatonic.
It does funny things to coaches, too. Like John Brady (4) at Arkansas State. With his team on a 6-0 run to pull within two points of Arkansas-Little Rock with 90 seconds left in a Sun Belt quarterfinal Sunday, Brady chose that particularly vital moment to go off his rocker. According to media reports, when one of his players went down with a cramp the always-volatile former LSU coach strayed from the coaches' box to scream at the officials and the opposing bench.
Bang. Technical foul. UALR scored six straight points and was never threatened again in a 59-52 victory.
"It was the wrong thing to do," Brady conceded to the Jonesboro Sun.
Time now to find the teams, players and coaches who can do the right thing. Who can bring it for three or four (or maybe even five, in the Big East) consecutive nights. Who can keep their wits while all those around them are losing theirs. Who can take down the nets, and see their names in the bracket Sunday night.
So it's time for some lunatic picks in Part II of the Forde Minutes Little Dance preview, wherein we presage the 15 league tournaments that start this week:
(*The NCAA Final Four records book does not recognize vacated Final Fours, and neither does The Minutes. Furthermore, Final Four appearances are based upon league membership as it's currently constructed).
Atlantic 10. March 8-13, Atlantic City (first round at various sites).
Top seed: Xavier.
Sagarin conference rank: Ninth out of the 31 that receive automatic bids.
Storyline: Can Xavier follow through? The Musketeers dominated the regular season, but that hasn't translated into A-10 tourney success. They haven't even made the final, much less won the thing, since 2006.
Dark horse: George Washington. The fifth-seeded Colonials have won five of their past six and have a useful draw that could pit them against Xavier in the semifinals. GW was in the game at Xavier until the final three minutes in their only meeting.
Sliding: Fourth-seeded Duquesne has lost six of its past eight.
Best player: Tu Holloway (5), Xavier. The point guard is averaging more than 20 points, five rebounds and five assists for the best team in the league. And he doesn't get tired -- Holloway has played 40 minutes in six of the Musketeers' past nine games.
Player who could steal the spotlight: Lavoy Allen (6), Temple. Has flipped the switch into beast mode. Averages the past five games for the senior strongman: 17.6 points, 14 rebounds, 3 assists and 2.0 blocks.
Coach most likely to go John Brady on the refs or media: John Giannini, La Salle. Sideline wild man who is on the hot seat and whose team's performance is highly unpredictable.
Minutes pick: Temple. The Owls have coalesced as a unit to win their past 11 league games, and Xavier has a history of leaving the tourney open for someone else to win.
Last time league put a team in the Final Four: Never.
ACC. March 10-13, Greensboro, N.C.
Top seed: North Carolina.
Sagarin conference rank: Fourth out of the 31 that receive automatic bids.
Storyline: We know North Carolina and Duke can play. Anyone else want to prove it? NCAA bids could be anywhere from three to six, and the bubble drama should make the early rounds compelling.
Dark horse: Clemson (7). The Purnell-to-Brownell coaching switch could make the Tigers a better postseason team.
Sliding: Virginia Tech (8), naturally. The bubble-addicted Hokies followed their court-storming, résumé-strengthening triumph over Duke with résumé-damaging losses to Boston College (in a rout at home) and Clemson.
Best player: Nolan Smith, Duke. He's done everything for the Blue Devils in a brilliant season, averaging 21.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists. Hasn't scored fewer than 18 points in a league game all season.
Player who could steal the spotlight: Kendall Marshall, North Carolina.
Coach most likely to go John Brady on the refs or media: Paul Hewitt, Georgia Tech. If this is really the last roundup for Hewitt, he might go out blazing.
Minutes pick: Duke, which will play to win. Its chief rival might not. Roy Williams' disdain for this event is well-known and was on full display Saturday night after the Heels' defeat of the Blue Devils. He referred to the ACC tourney as a "cocktail party" before muzzling himself.
Last time league put a team in the Final Four: Last year, when Duke won the thing.
Big 12. March 9-12, Kansas City, Mo.
Top seed: Kansas.
Sagarin conference rank: Third out of the 31 that receive automatic bids.
Storyline: Is this the Sunflower State invitational, or is anyone else going to show up ready to play? Outside of Kansas and Kansas State, nobody comes into this tournament hitting on all cylinders. Colorado, Nebraska and Baylor all will be striving to get onto the right side of the bubble.
Dark horse: Kansas State. Wildcats have won six straight, raising their level of performance to where The Minutes thought it would be all season.
Sliding: Missouri lost its past three games and has become almost incapable of winning away from Mizzou Arena.
Best player: Marcus Morris, Kansas. Leads the team in scoring (17.3 points per game) and is second in rebounding (7.0). Shoots a great percentage (.597) and has diversified his game with improved face-up play and range.
Player who could steal the spotlight: Jacob Pullen (9), Kansas State. Nobody in the league and few players in the country have been better than Pullen in the past three weeks. In that time, he has averaged 25.6 points and lived at the foul line, making 55 of 64 free throws. He's willing K-State off the bubble and into the tourney.
Coach most likely to go John Brady on the refs or media: Pat Knight (10), Texas Tech. He's already fired, so there's nothing holding him back. And we know he's got it in the gene pool.
Minutes pick: Kansas (11). Bill Self is 14-3 in this event, the best winning percentage in league history. If the Jayhawks can get past a potential semifinal/rubber game with the Wildcats, it should be theirs for the taking.
Last time league put a team in the Final Four: 2008, when Kansas won it all.
Big East. March 8-12, New York
Top seed: Pittsburgh.
Sagarin conference rank: First out of the 31 that receive automatic bids.
Storyline: Will this be the best conference tournament ever? With 11 potential NCAA tournament teams, even the first-round games will have some juice. By the quarterfinals, it should be ridiculous. And the atmosphere in Madison Square Garden will only be helped by a viable St. John's. Potentially epic.
Dark horse: Cincinnati (12). The Bearcats have won five of their past six, and their second-round opponent will be either struggling Villanova or USF. After that is a potential matchup with Notre Dame, which could be a dandy game.
Sliding: Villanova. The Wildcats have lost four straight and six of their past eight.
Best player: Ben Hansbrough (13), Notre Dame. At least when he's not committing foolish fifth fouls with eight minutes left in a big game. But that brain-lock moment Saturday against Connecticut cannot undermine a sensational senior season: 18.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and gorgeous shooting percentages across the board: .492 from the field, .451 from 3-point range and .818 from the line.
Player who could steal the spotlight: Jeremy Hazell (14), Seton Hall. Has his shot dialed in again after missing much of the season because of injury. Could make the Pirates a bracket breaker, at least for a round or two.
Coach most likely to go John Brady on the refs or media: Jim Calhoun, UConn. A cranky man whose team has lost four of its past five.
Minutes pick: Syracuse. Orange have regained their early verve, winning five straight. If the zone is active and they're passing well, they'll be a tough out.
Last time league put a team in the Final Four: Last year, when West Virginia got there.
Big Ten. March 10-13, Indianapolis
Top seed: Ohio State.
Sagarin conference rank: Second out of the 31 that receive automatic bids.
Storyline: Can the Buckeyes establish themselves as the clear team to beat in the NCAAs? They looked spectacular Sunday in crushing Wisconsin, and their only losses were on the road in daunting atmospheres. They could face a similar road-game feel in a potential championship matchup with Purdue, if both get there.
Dark horse: Michigan. The Wolverines' only two losses in the past eight games were by a total of three points, and one of them came courtesy of a fluke banked-in 3 at the gun. If Michigan gets a semifinal shot at Ohio State, it might have a chance -- if it can make enough shots.
Sliding: Minnesota (15). The Gophers have lost nine of their past 10 games, drop-kicking what once appeared to be a solid NCAA bid and stirring up grumbling about Tubby Smith's job performance.
Best player: JaJuan Johnson (16), Purdue. He has scored 20 or more points in 13 of his past 15 games. His 20.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game have helped keep the Boilermakers an elite team since the preseason injury to Robbie Hummel.
Player who could steal the spotlight: Jon Diebler, Ohio State. He's been absolutely molten from 3-point range of late, making 17 of his last 20 in his past two games. The Buckeyes' balance and the interior presence of Jared Sullinger make it difficult to focus too much attention on Diebler, and he's making teams pay for it.
Coach most likely to go John Brady on the refs or media: Tom Crean, Indiana. It's been a tough month for the Hoosiers, who have lost eight straight. Even though his team is in last place, Crean will not want to disappoint the home-state fans with a first-round exit.
Minutes pick: Michigan (17). The Minutes billed these as lunatic picks, right? Well, this would qualify. But John Beilein has never lost his first Big Ten tourney game, and if the Wolverines can win one, hey, maybe they can win three.
Last time league put a team in the Final Four: Michigan State in 2010.
Big West. March 10-12, Anaheim, Calif.
Top seed: Long Beach State.
Sagarin conference rank: 19th out of the 31 that receive automatic bids.
Storyline: Can anyone reach the Beach? The 49ers won the league by four games and bring a nine-game winning streak into the tournament. The only dicey element is the fact that Long Beach State's two victories over potential semifinal opponent Pacific came by a total of two points.
Minutes pick: Long Beach State (18).
Last time league won an NCAA tournament game: 2005, when No. 9 seed Pacific beat Pittsburgh.
Conference USA. March 9-12, El Paso, Texas
Top seed: UAB.
Sagarin conference rank: Eighth out of the 31 that receive automatic bids.
Storyline: Calling this tournament wide open might be an insult to UAB, but what the heck: it's wide open. As many as seven teams will converge on El Paso thinking they have a shot -- but the Miners have home-court advantage and should know what to do with it.
Minutes pick: UTEP (19).
Last time league won an NCAA tournament game: 2009, when Memphis advanced to the Sweet 16.
MAC. March 8-12, various sites.
Top seed: Kent State.
Sagarin conference rank: 17th out of the 31 that receive automatic bids.
Storyline: The No Great Teams national mantra can certainly be applied with specificity to the MAC. Nobody is in the top 100 of the Sagarin ratings, and top seed Kent State has had only one of its past eight games decided by more than seven points. Close and unpredictable seems like a sane bet -- which is why the lunatic pick is to take the chalk.
Minutes pick: Kent State (20).
Last time league won an NCAA tournament game: In 2010, when No. 14 seed Ohio upset Georgetown in the first round.
MEAC. March 8-12, Winston-Salem, N.C.
Top seed: Bethune-Cookman.
Sagarin conference rank: 30th out of the 31 that receive automatic bids.
Storyline: Bethune or bust! The Wildcats are fighting history here, trying to secure their first NCAA bid. They've won seven straight games but can they win three now with everything on the line?
Minutes pick: Hampton (21).
Last time league won an NCAA tournament game: 2004, when Florida A&M won the opening-round game. Beyond that, it was 2001, when No. 15 seed Hampton shocked Iowa State.
MWC. March 8-12, Las Vegas
Top seed: BYU.
Sagarin conference rank: Fifth out of the 31 that receive automatic bids.
Storyline: Can BYU (22) regroup? The Cougars' NCAA viability remains in serious question since the stunning suspension of leading rebounder and third-leading scorer Brandon Davies last week. They must try to prove to a skeptical nation that they're still worthy of consideration for a No. 1 or 2 seed in the Big Dance -- and they might have to overcome Lobo-phobia to do it. A possible semifinal game with nemesis New Mexico, which has beaten BYU four straight, is looming.
Dark horse: UNLV. The Rebels are 0-4 this season against the power axis of BYU and San Diego State. But they have home-court advantage and, despite the great work this year by Dave Rose and Steve Fisher, the guy who still is the best coach in the league: Lon Kruger.
Sliding: Utah has lost seven of its past 10, and the chorus calling for a coaching change has grown louder with each Utes defeat. (And, not coincidentally, each BYU victory.)
Best player: Jimmer Fredette, BYU. You might have heard of him.
Player who could steal the spotlight: Tre'Von Willis, UNLV. It's been a pretty lousy season for Willis, who has seen his scoring average drop from 17.2 to 13 and his field goal percentage from 48 to 43. But he has shot well in UNLV's past three games (9-of-12 on 3s), and this would be an ideal stage for a redemptive run.
Coach most likely to go John Brady on the refs or media: This doesn't seem like a very hot-tempered league, but the coach under the most stress at this point is Utah's Jim Boylen, so he gets it by default.
Minutes pick: UNLV (23). The Rebels have lost four straight to the Aztecs, who loom as potential semifinal opponents. But by then, The Minutes expects UNLV to be on its first six-game winning streak against MWC competition in four years, and momentum will carry it through to a title-game matchup with Cinderella New Mexico. From there, UNLV will close the deal.
Last time league put a team in the Final Four: Never.
Pac-10. March 9-12, Los Angeles
Top seed: Arizona.
Sagarin conference rank: Sixth out of the 31 that receive automatic bids.
Storyline: Mediocrity should at least breed competitiveness. The top three seeds in this tourney all lost at least twice in the last three weeks of the regular season -- they're vulnerable. Can anyone from the league's uninspiring midpack (or lower) rise up to take advantage?
Dark horse: USC. The Trojans have run the backdoor play on the bubble, suddenly showing up within striking distance of a bid after closing with five victories in their past six games (including upsets of Arizona at home and Washington in Seattle).
Best player: Derrick Williams, Arizona. Versatile, efficient player with athleticism and feel for the game. Averages 18.8 points and 8.2 rebounds, and it's scary to think what his numbers might be if he shot the ball more. (He has 16 games with single-digit shot attempts. Even for a guy who goes to the line a lot, that's criminally low.)
Player who could steal the spotlight: Jorge Gutierrez (24), California. Fearless, feisty guard has upped his game since late January, averaging 19.2 points, 5.6 assists and 1.8 steals in his past 11 games.
Coach most likely to go John Brady on the refs or media: Kevin O'Neill (25) of USC certainly has the vocabulary for that job, if he feels so moved.
Minutes pick: USC. No team fills The Minutes with complete confidence, so the search for a Cinderella landed on the Trojans. They'll have a tough quarterfinal matchup with Cal, but a victory there could be the springboard to a three-game run in L.A.
Last time league put a team in the Final Four: 2008, when UCLA made the last of three straight Final Fours.
SEC. March 10-13, Atlanta
Top seed: Florida.
Sagarin conference rank: Seventh out of the 31 that receive automatic bids.
Storyline: Is Florida (26) ready to flex its muscles again? Since winning the 2006 and '07 national titles, the Gators have losing records in the SEC tourney (2-3) and the Big Dance (0-1). More will be expected of this veteran group in both tourneys this year.
Dark horse: Mississippi State. It's been a ridiculously dysfunctional year in Starkville -- but nobody ever said the Bulldogs lack talent, and they're on a three-game winning streak. With a first-round bye and a likely quarterfinal matchup with notorious SEC tourney dog Vanderbilt, Mississippi State could make a move.
Best player: Brandon Knight (27), Kentucky. His ability to shoot with range or drive makes him the toughest cover in the league, and his assertiveness in key situations is an admirable trait for a freshman. And he's not likely to wear out, averaging 35.6 minutes per game.
Player who could steal the spotlight: JaMychal Green, Alabama. He's in the top eight in the league in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots and steals, and he has keyed the Crimson Tide's return to relevance. Only thing he doesn't do well is handle the ball (2.8 turnovers per game).
Coach most likely to go John Brady on the refs or media: Trent Johnson, LSU. When you wind up last in a division that also includes Auburn, you have good reason to be irritable. The media set is probably safe, but tell the zebras to watch out.
Minutes pick: The Minutes suspects that the Wildcats broke the close-game/road-game barrier in the past week with a two-point home win over Vanderbilt and a road win over Tennessee. Combine that with the most talent and a beneficial draw, and this tourney sets up well for Big Blue.
Last time league put a team in the Final Four: 2007, when Florida won its second straight national title.
Southland. March 9-12, Katy, Texas
Top seed: McNeese State.
Sagarin conference rank: 20th out of the 31 that receive automatic bids.
Storyline: This is the Tub of Live Bait League, with everybody losing at least five conference games and 10 overall. Nobody is bringing a winning streak longer than three into this tournament. Should be a four-day spin of the roulette wheel.
Minutes pick: Stephen F. Austin (28). If any conference is ripe to be won by a No. 6 seed, this is it.
Last time league won an NCAA tournament game: 2006, when No. 14 seed Northwestern State upset Iowa.
SWAC. March 9-12, Garland, Texas
Top seed: Texas Southern.
Storyline: The Tigers won the league by four games and have lost just once in their past 11 games -- but that doesn't mean this will be a walkover. Seven of those 10 victories were by five or fewer points, and two were in overtime.
Minutes pick: Texas Southern (29).
Last time league won an NCAA tournament game: Last year, when Arkansas-Pine Bluff won the opening-round game. Beyond that, it was 1993, when No. 13 seed Southern upset Georgia Tech.
WAC. March 9-12, Las Vegas
Top seed: Utah State.
Sagarin conference rank: 13th out of the 31 that receive automatic bids.
Storyline: It would take a fairly huge upset for anyone to beat the Aggies. They're one of two teams gifted with a double bye. The other is Boise State, and Utah State has beaten the Broncos twice by a total of 37 points. The Aggies might have to face a semifinal game with the one team that beat them in league play, Idaho, but they avenged that defeat recently by 16 points.
Minutes pick: Utah State (30).
Last time league won an NCAA tournament game: 2007, when Nevada beat Creighton.
Since we have a moment to catch our breath before the big tournaments get serious, The Minutes is handing out some national awards:
Player of the Year (31): Jimmer Fredette, BYU. The senior scoring machine is finishing the most impactful season by a player from outside the "big six" conferences since Jameer Nelson was running the show at Saint Joseph's in 2004.
Coach of the Year (32): Mike Brey, Notre Dame. The Minutes has been all over the board on this one and still thinks Purdue's Matt Painter would be a great choice. But after taking a look at the preseason rankings, it's time to award this to Brey. Fifty-one teams received votes in the ESPN/USA Today preseason Top 25. The Fighting Irish were not one of them. Today, they're ranked fourth.
Freshman of the Year (33): Jared Sullinger, Ohio State. Hard to believe the Buckeyes could lose the 2010 national player of the year and get better, but they have because of what Sullinger has delivered. With the 280-pounder distorting defenses in the middle, the Buckeyes are nearly a perfect offensive machine.
Minutes All-Americans (34): Fredette, Nolan Smith of Duke, JaJuan Johnson of Purdue, Sullinger, Derrick Williams of Arizona.
All-Minutes Team (35), subtitled Five Guys Who Just Know How to Play: David Lighty of Ohio State, Brad Wanamaker of Pittsburgh, Dogus Balbay of Texas, Mickey McConnell of Saint Mary's, Kendall Marshall of North Carolina.
Bust of the Year (36): Michigan State. It will take an even more incredible postseason run than either of the past two years for the Spartans to salvage this train wreck of a season. But at least they should get a chance to make that run, if they beat Iowa in the first round of the Big Ten tourney.
Play of the Year (37): The midcourt steal and running, leg-kicking 28-foot 3-pointer by Matt Dickey of North Carolina-Asheville to beat Coastal Carolina in February. The Bulldogs enjoyed that so much they turned around and beat the Chanticleers again for the Big South tourney title.
Technical foul of the Year (38): Louisville cheerleader Jordan Alcazar, whose intrusion onto the court to grab the ball and throw it in the air with less than a second left in the Cardinals' victory over Pittsburgh gave the Panthers a final chance to salvage the game. In the long and useless history of male cheerleaders, this was a new low.
When thirsty in the basketball holy land of Chapel Hill, The Minutes recommends a pilgrimage to Franklin Street -- always festive, but especially after the Tar Heels have just beaten Duke. If Top of The Hill is too crowded, stroll across the street to Spanky's (39) and order a locally brewed and sensationally hoppy Peacemaker Pale Ale (40). Thank The Minutes later.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.