Commentary

Everything is big this Dance season

Originally Published: March 13, 2011
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Welcome to the Forde Minutes Big Dance Edition, where we expand the names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball from 40 to 68 (never-worn glass slippers sold separately at Northern Colorado (1) ):

Hoops gigantism

The operative number of the NCAA tournament has changed. Out with 65, in with 68. And although that number might conjure images of L.C. Greenwood for some, it has a very different meaning to The Minutes.

[+] EnlargeUCLA, Houston
AP photo/stfHouston took center stage in 1968 when Lew Alcindor and Elvin Hayes battled at the Astrodome.

In particular, 68 evokes images of '68 -- as in 1968. And here in 2011, the link to that year brings college basketball full circle.

It was in 1968 when the game first waded into the big time and dared to be a prominent part of the nation's major sporting landscape.

The vehicle for that was a game in the Houston Astrodome matching Lew Alcindor (2) and UCLA against Elvin Hayes (3) and Houston -- the first nationally televised prime-time regular-season game and the first game in a domed stadium. They put a crowd of 52,693 in the dome, which remained a college basketball record until the 2003 Final Four in New Orleans.

It has grown steadily ever since -- particularly the NCAA tournament, which now comes to Houston some 43 years after that watershed moment. The venue has moved just across the street, from the Astrodome to Reliant Stadium, where the champion of the first field of 68 will be crowned in the city that first super-sized the game back in '68.

Now that we've concluded a tumultuous, messy, unpredictable and entertaining regular season and Championship Week, strap in for what has the potential to be one of the wildest NCAA tournaments ever. There is a little bit of everything here under the Big Dance's big tent, from Vanderbilt (4) to Vander Blue (5), from Cashmere (Wright, of Cincinnati) to Casper (Ware, of Long Beach State), from Scoop (Jardine, of Syracuse) to Flip (Pressey, of Missouri).

It's going to be big.

Big Dreams

The magnificent seven teams with the best chance of cutting down the nets April 4:

[+] EnlargeBill Self
AP Photo/Matt YorkBill Self has a very deep team and a championship pedigree as evidenced by his 2008 title.

Kansas (6). What's to like: Probably the deepest team in the country. Both losses came to good teams, with some mitigating factors. The Jayhawks shoot a phenomenal 51 percent from the field. Veterans up and down the roster. Coach Bill Self has one of those shiny rings that shows he can win the big one. What's to doubt: Self also has his fair share of early NCAA flameouts, including last year with the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament. Guards are all good, but none are great; can any of them consistently create off the dribble?

Ohio State (7). What's to like: Best six-man rotation in college basketball. Outstanding offensive team that you must defend honestly, because it can hurt you from every position. Center Jared Sullinger is the best low-post player in the country. Coach Thad Matta has Final Four experience (2007), which history shows is a key title prerequisite. What's to doubt: An injury or foul trouble could unspring everything, given the lack of depth. A team relying on a freshman point guard and freshman center -- even a good freshman point guard and freshman center -- could wobble in the March crucible. This is a good defensive team but not a dominant defensive team.

Notre Dame (8). What's to like: One of the most experienced teams in the country with an all-senior starting lineup. Great shooters and good height. Some star power in Ben Hansbrough, who has stepped up his game remarkably this season. What's to doubt: Not the most athletic group, leaving it susceptible to a bad matchup. Not a lot of depth. There are a lot of skilled 6-foot-8 guys, but no 6-10 tower of power. Mike Brey has never been to a Final Four or even a regional final as head coach.

North Carolina (9). What's to like: The Tar Heels have come on like a freight train in the past six weeks, riding the exceptional play of freshmen forward Harrison Barnes and point guard Kendall Marshall. This is a very good defensive team, which isn't always the case with recent Roy Williams teams. Ol' Roy knows the way to the Final Four, and knows how to win it. What's to doubt: Soft ACC may set them up; Heels have beaten just two RPI top 50 teams, Kentucky and Duke. Zero quality depth behind Marshall. Same freshman-based concerns at Carolina as at Ohio State. Can a young team really go from the NIT Final Four to the NCAA Final Four in 12 months?

Duke (10). What's to like: The Blue Devils have a roster full of players who know what it takes to win a national title, having done it last year. And the best coach in the business. In Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, they have two seniors who have seen it all and played at a very high level in previous NCAA tourneys. What's to doubt: Without injured point guard Kyrie Irving, this team falls short of special. Although Singler got some of his offensive game back at the ACC tournament, he still has struggled badly from 3-point range in recent weeks. Is there a third scorer in the house?

Kentucky (11). What's to like: Another fantastic six-man rotation that features at least two potential lottery picks in point guard Brandon Knight and forward Terrence Jones. Young Wildcats have made big strides late, winning close games and big games away from Rupp Arena. John Calipari has had some major NCAA tourney successes. What's to doubt: Lack of depth leaves the Wildcats susceptible to injury or foul concerns. Lack of experience from key players leaves them susceptible to execution concerns in the pressure of the tournament. Was the SEC sufficient seasoning to beat the best from other leagues?

San Diego State (12). What's to like: Only one team has been able to beat the Aztecs -- and that team (BYU) is now damaged goods after a key player suspension. SDSU is good offensively but very good defensively, and its athletic front line can hammer an opponent on the offensive glass. Coach Steve Fisher won it all once and has plenty of Final Four experience. What's to doubt: Can the Aztecs go from zero all-time NCAA tournament wins to six in a single swoop? Can they handle the pressure of being expected to make a big March run?

Big Threats

Six lower seeds that could make noise:

[+] EnlargeShelvin Mack
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireShelvin Mack and his Butler teammates know how to handle pressure in March.

Butler (13). Why the Bulldogs are dangerous: They're nowhere near as good as last year's national runner-up squad, but seriously: Are you going to bet against their winning at least one game? In perilous bubble position, Butler showed its championship mettle by winning its last nine games. Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack, Ronald Nored and the boys seem to thrive on March pressure.

George Mason (14). Why the Patriots are dangerous: Mason is no fluke, having won 16 straight games at one point and 26 overall. Coach Jim Larranaga authored one of the great NCAA runs ever, when the Patriots barged into the 2006 Final Four as a No. 11 seed. They take good shots and don't turn the ball over, which means they're unlikely to beat themselves.

Michigan State (15). Why the Spartans are dangerous: They're always dangerous this time of year, and they showed it in routing Purdue at the Big Ten tournament. This has been the most inconsistent, dysfunctional and puzzling Tom Izzo team in quite a while, but it's still a Tom Izzo team. Pick against them at your peril.

Oakland (16). Why the Grizzlies are dangerous: They have the kind of center you don't normally see in the Summit League in 6-foot-11 Keith Benson (18 points, 10 rebounds, 3.6 blocks per game). But that's not all. Point guard Reggie Hamilton has been a dynamic playmaker as well. And the team learned from the experience of going to the Big Dance last year.

Old Dominion (17). Why the Monarchs are dangerous: Like George Mason, they've been seasoned in a quality mid-major league. They're 13-1 in their past 14 games and have just one bad loss on the schedule, way back on Dec. 4. These guys also have tasted NCAA success, winning a game last year.

Big Pressure

Who needs to step up and be accounted for in this tournament?

Big East (18). If the league is going to gobble up 11 bids -- and it deserved them all, in The Minutes' judgment -- it had better win a lot of games. Last year, the Big East got eight teams in but largely underperformed, with Georgetown, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Villanova, Notre Dame and Marquette all losing before their seeding dictated. If West Virginia hadn't upset Kentucky and made the Final Four, it would have been a total loss. With 11 teams in, expectations will be enormous. Specifically for a couple of teams …

[+] EnlargeJamie Dixon
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireIf Jamie Dixon is going to make his first Final Four, this might be the season.

Pittsburgh (19). The Panthers have been the most consistent success story in the Big East, and one of the most consistent in the nation, for many years. Yet they haven't been to a Final Four since World War II. Given Pitt's second No. 1 seed in the past three tourneys, the time is now for Jamie Dixon to break through and finally play on the season's last weekend.

Notre Dame. This is the best Fighting Irish team since the 1979 squad that was a No. 1 seed and lost in the regional final to Magic Johnson and Michigan State. Notre Dame hasn't been to a Final Four since the year before that. With all those seniors, Mike Brey may never have a better opportunity for something memorable than this year.

Wisconsin (20). The Badgers are the Pittsburgh of the Midwest: fantastically consistent and successful in the regular season but fatally flawed in the postseason. Bo Ryan needs to prove that his system can win the games that matter most -- and after watching Wisconsin score 33 points against Penn State in a certifiably repugnant Big Ten tourney game, The Minutes has its doubts.

San Diego State. The Aztecs have never won an NCAA tournament game in school history. But forget winning just one; they'll be expected to win more than that with a 32-2 team.

Texas (21). Rick Barnes has coached an awful lot of talent in Austin, but it's been eight years since his one and only Final Four. This team appeared to be a national title contender until some late lapses, then performed well in the Big 12 tourney. Barnes is 19-18 in his career in the NCAA tournament; this team has the capability to improve that uninspiring percentage.

Big Mo

Five teams that are rolling at just the right time:

North Carolina. Heading into the Sunday ACC final against Duke, the Heels had won nine straight. Five of them were by two points or fewer or in overtime, which is either highly clutch play or clean livin'. Carolina's penchant for wild, scrambling comebacks probably has shortened a few lifespans of its fans in recent days.

Kansas State (22). As long as the Wildcats avoid Colorado, they should have a good run. Their only losses in their past 10 games are twice to the Buffaloes -- who have, in fact, beaten them three times on the season. After appearing in disarray for a long time, K-State peeled off six straight victories -- half of them against ranked teams -- to re-establish themselves.

Syracuse (23). The Orange slumped through late January and early February, but they've won six of their past seven -- four of them against NCAA tournament teams. An overtime Big East semifinal loss to on-a-mission Connecticut is no reason to dismiss them as a threat.

Gonzaga (24). The Bulldogs have won nine straight since losing in Spokane to Memphis. The struggles of late January seem a long time ago now -- mainly because they are a long time ago.

Bucknell (25). The Bison haven't lost since late January.

Big Trouble

Five teams that are reeling at just the wrong time:

Villanova (26). Coughing up a 16-point lead in the Big East tourney to miserable South Florida was only the latest sign of decline for the Wildcats. They've lost five straight and seven of their past nine, and they haven't beaten an NCAA tournament team since Feb. 5. They bear strong resemblance to last year's Villanova team, which had a No. 2 seed and was lucky to win one game before being blown out by Saint Mary's.

Purdue (27). The Boilermakers have had a great season since the October injury to Robbie Hummel, but they aren't finishing strong. They were shocked in the final game of the regular season at woeful Iowa, then were routed in their only Big Ten tourney game by Michigan State. In the last 63 minutes the Boilers have played, they've led for only 30 seconds.

Georgetown (28). The Hoyas are winless since the hand injury to No. 2 scorer and leading distributor Chris Wright. They've averaged only 51.5 points in those four defeats. If Wright cannot come back and play effectively, this will be a short tournament for Georgetown.

Missouri (29). The Tigers have been pretty lousy away from home, and the NCAA doesn't have any games scheduled for Columbia this week. They've lost four of their past five and haven't beaten an NCAA tourney team since Feb. 5.

Tennessee (30). The Volunteers' record in their past 11 games: 4-7. They haven't won two in a row since late January/early February. Watching them play, you can at times feel your own basketball IQ dwindling by osmosis.

Big Stars

Who will be the leading men of the tournament? Who knows? But these guys come in with the biggest reps:

[+] EnlargeJimmer Fredette
Douglas C. Pizac/US PresswireWill Jimmer Fredette be able to repeat the past success of Jameer Nelson, or maybe even Larry Bird?

Jimmer Fredette (31), BYU. The Jimmer Show has been the most interesting individual story of the season. The senior guard is the leading scorer in the nation and the most compelling player from outside the big-six conferences since Jameer Nelson led St. Joseph's to the regional finals in 2004. If Jimmer gets BYU beyond that threshold -- a long shot without famously suspended forward Brandon Davies -- it would be the finest off-Broadway season since a guy named Larry Bird led Indiana State to the title game in 1979.

Kemba Walker (32), UConn. The East Coast Jimmer was brilliant early in the season and even better late, when he willed the Huskies to the five-in-five fiesta in Madison Square Garden. He is clutch to the extreme, and has made this UConn team far better than it has a right to be on paper.

Nolan Smith (33), Duke. The Blue Devils' repeat hopes nearly went down with Smith when he injured his toe against Maryland in the ACC quarterfinals. But since two catastrophic toe injuries in the same season exceeds the limits of fate and good taste, Smith came back fine the next day. The senior guard will need to play to his excellent season-long standard for Duke to reach Houston.

Jared Sullinger (34), Ohio State. For a 6-foot-9 guy who does most of his work below the rim, Sullinger is remarkably effective. His brute strength is packaged with a deceptive lateral quickness, and he's smart with the ball in the face of double-teams. In a sport full of competitive people, his is noteworthy.

JaJuan Johnson (35), Purdue. The expansion of his offensive game has been a joy to behold. The 6-9 Johnson now can score with his back to the basket, from 20 feet out and even off the drive. He's scored at least 20 points in 14 of Purdue's past 16 games.

Derrick Williams (36), Arizona. The only double-digit scorer for the regular-season Pacific-10 champions has carried his team with distinction all season. At 6-8, 241, he's well-suited for interior play -- but his 3-point shooting stats are crazy. The sophomore is 35-of-58 from outside the arc, which is 60 percent accuracy. He made 6 of 10 3s in the Pac-10 tournament and actually hurt his percentage.

Big Men

Wide-body players who will throw their weight around in the paint:

[+] EnlargeJosh Smith
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesJosh Smith is a space eater down low for UCLA.

Josh Smith (37), UCLA. Size: 6-10, 305. (If he's 305, The Minutes is a Size 2.) Impact: The Rubenesque freshman didn't have a great Pac-10 tournament, averaging just 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds, but he'll be a nightmare to keep off the block and off the glass in this tournament.

Jared Sullinger, Ohio State. Size: 6-9, 280. Impact: He will mix it up with gusto inside -- and now he's starting to get the All-American whistle, as well. At the Big Ten tournament Sullinger was a frequent foul-line visitor.

Kenny Frease (38), Xavier. Size: 7-foot, 269. Impact: He's more than doubled his scoring average from last season, from 5.1 to 11.7, and every other key stat has had a similar jump. The Musketeers run on the perimeter power of point guard Tu Holloway, but Frease has been an underrated asset on the inside.

Robert Sacre (39), Gonzaga. Size: 7-foot, 260. The Zags' late run has largely coincided with increased assertiveness from Sacre. He can still be maddeningly indifferent at times -- Sacre somehow had zero rebounds in a West Coast Conference game against San Diego -- but when motivated he is tough to move. Or stop.

Josh Harrellson (40), Kentucky. Size: 6-10, 275. One of the better senior success stories in college basketball this year. Harrelson came to Lexington under Billy Gillispie. He appeared in danger of being run off by John Calipari. He stuck around but was buried on the bench behind first-round picks DeMarcus Cousins and Daniel Orton. Now, he's an indispensible cog in the middle, averaging 8.8 rebounds and benefiting from all the attention paid to his more touted teammates.

Big Winners

The coaches with the best NCAA tournament records:

Mike Krzyzewski (41), Duke. Record: 77-22. Winning percentage: .778. National titles: 1991, '92, 2001, 2010. Other Final Fours: 1986, '88, '89, '90, '94, '99, 2004. Current streak of consecutive NCAA appearances: 15.

Roy Williams (42), North Carolina. Record: 55-18. Winning percentage: .753. National titles: 2005, '09. Other Final Fours: 1991, '93, '02, '03, '08. Current streak of consecutive NCAA appearances: one.

Tom Izzo (43), Michigan State. Record: 35-12. Winning percentage: .745. National title: 2000. Other Final Fours: 1999, 2001, '05, '09, '10. Current streak of consecutive NCAA appearances: 13.

Billy Donovan (44), Florida. Record: 22-8. Winning percentage: .733. National titles: 2006, '07. Other Final Four: 2000. Current streak of consecutive NCAA appearances: two.

Rick Pitino (45), Louisville. Record: 38-14. Winning percentage: .731. National title: 1996. Other Final Fours: 1987, '93, '97, 2005. Current streak of consecutive NCAA appearances: five.

Big Losers

The coaches with the worst NCAA tournament records:

Fran Dunphy (46), Temple. Record: 1-12. Winning percentage: .077. Average seed: 11.5. Last win: 1994.

Stew Morrill (47), Utah State. Record: 1-8. Winning percentage: .111. Average seed: 13. Last win: 2001.

Blaine Taylor (48), Old Dominion. Record: 1-5. Winning percentage: .167. Average seed: 13. Last win: 2010.

Dave Rose (49), BYU. Record: 1-4. Winning percentage: .200. Average seed: 7.8. Last win: 2010.

Leonard Hamilton (50), Florida State. Record: 3-5. Winning percentage: .375. Average seed: 6.6. Last win: 2000.

Big Silliness

The Minutes asks: Where are the Doggie Julians (51) and Phog Allens (52) of yesteryear?

One disappointing by-product of coaches becoming one-man brands is that they now take themselves too seriously to have nicknames. The only good ones out there currently are Tubby Smith at Minnesota and Bruiser Flint at Drexel, and neither of them will grace this Dance with their presence.

[+] EnlargeWimp Sanderson
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyLooking for a good tourney nickname? How about former Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson.

To determine the five all-time best coaching nicknames in NCAA tournament history, The Minutes polled several of its most juvenile friends. The results, in reverse order:

Tippy Dye (53). Coached Ohio State and Washington in the tourney. Took the Huskies to the 1953 Final Four. Pollster comment: "I like saying it. Slow or fast."

Nibs Price (54). Coached California to the 1946 Final Four. Pollster comment: "A first-ballot no-brainer."

Whack Hyder (55). Coached Georgia Tech in the 1960 tournament. Pollster comment: "Who or what did he whack to acquire that nickname?"

Wimp Sanderson (56). Coached Alabama to multiple tourney appearances in the 1980s and '90s. Pollster comment: "As un-Lombardi as a name can get."

And the winner of the best coaching nickname in NCAA tourney history ...

... Weenie Miller (57). He coached VMI into the 1964 field. No comments necessary. His handle stands on its own merit.

Big Trends

What You'll See Too Much Of ...

• The high ball screen. Forget running plays with any complexity; as the shot clock wanes, team after team goes to a default screen at the top of the key for the dribbler -- you'll see it ad nauseum in the next three weeks.

"The high middle ball screen has become America's late-game play of choice even if involves bringing a second defender into the play to, potentially, clog up the spacing of the play or trap the ball out of the best player's hands," said ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla. "It has become an easy play to guard."

Said fellow ESPN analyst Dino Gaudio: "Everyone's play of choice is the high ball screen, and everyone switches it. I agree with Stan Van Gundy, you are better off isolating your best player, trying to clear a side without the ball screen."

• Fouled 3-point shooters. It's become an epidemic, either because officials are paying more attention or falling for more post-shot flops or defenders really are charging into shooters at a higher rate. Minutes prediction: It will cost someone a tournament game.

• Final possessions resulting in bad shots off of no passes. Just because an offensive player has the ball in his hands late in the game doesn't mean it has to stay in his hands. Especially if his idea of a clutch play is to cross over three times while going nowhere and then launch a 3.

• Charges. There are more collisions than ever. Defenders are sliding under drivers with greater frequency -- and, at times, greater dramatic effect. Minutes pet peeve: charges called under the basket that are drawn by secondary defenders who have nothing to do with the play.

What You Won't See Enough Of ...

• Jump stops. That thing above about more collisions than ever? It's because nobody comes to a jump stop and goes up for a midrange jumper anymore. The best way to avoid driving into the defense is to pull up.

• Opposite-handed finishes at the rim. Rare is the player who can finish a contested drive with his off hand. Rare but valuable.

Smart plays regarding time and score. When do you go for a 3, when do you drive for a 2? When do you foul, and when do you play it straight? When do you run clock, and when do you attack? Teams that have drilled on those scenarios could be at a major advantage in what should be a tourney packed with close games.

"I rarely watch a practice that involves late-game situations anymore, and it does show up on the court," Fraschilla said. "Preparing players to execute at the end of a game involves the development of their basketball IQ on a daily basis in practice. It's not how much the coach knows, but how well he teaches even his slowest-learning players to react in game situations."

Big Country To The North

So you like making fun of Canada? Well, cut it out. Our quirky neighbors have contributed quite a few key players to this Big Dance.

[+] EnlargeCory Joseph, Tristan Thompson
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCory Joseph and Tristan Thompson aren't the only prominent Canadian imports in the tourney.

From Ontario (58), we have Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph of Texas. Thompson, from Brampton, is one of the best freshmen in the nation, averaging 13.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game. Classmate Joseph, from Toronto, is not far behind at 10.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3 assists per game.

Arkansas-Little Rock (59) has a couple of guys from Ontario as well in Eric Kibi and Tramar Sutherland. Kibi, from Ottawa, chips in 4.6 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. Sutherland, from Toronto, is averaging 2.3 points. (The Trojans have shown the ability to go both north and south in recruiting. They also have Alex Garcia-Mendoza of El Fuerte, Mexico, who contributes 8.6 points per game, and Marlon Louzeiro of San Luis, Brazil.)

Belmont (60) has Jon House of Guelph, Ontario, who averages 5.4 points and 3.4 rebounds for the champions of the Atlantic Sun.

From British Columbia (61): Robert Sacre and Kelly Olynyk of Gonzaga. Sacre, mentioned above, is from North Vancouver. Olynyk, who averages 5.8 points, is from Kamloops.

From Alberta (62): Another Zag, Mangisto Arop. The Edmonton product averages.4.7 points and 3 rebounds.

And from Nova Scotia (63): Bryson Johnson of Bucknell. He's from renowned basketball hotbed Pictou, where they think Maine winters are soft. Johnson is the second-leading scorer for the Bison at 11.7 points and is one of the deadliest 3-point shooters in the Dance.

Big Biblical

Check the rosters and you'll see that this tournament has an Old Testament feel to it:

There are at least two Noahs (64). Dahlman of Wofford is the Terriers' leading scorer at 20 points per game. Hartsock of BYU is good for 8.5 points and 6 rebounds a night.

And two Solomons (65). Hill of Arizona contributes 7.8 points and 4.4 rebounds. Bozeman leads UALR in scoring at 16.5.

There is an Isaiah (66) (Thomas, the hero of Washington's Pac-10 tourney final) and an Isiah (Martin, of Indiana State).

And there is an Elijah (67) (Johnson, of Kansas) and an Elisha (Justice, of Louisville).

Big Birds

This Dance has Lions (Penn State), Tigers (Missouri, Princeton, Clemson, Memphis) and a surplus of Bears (Northern Colorado, Oakland, Belmont, UCLA). It has a few hooved herd animals Bucknell Bison and Texas Longhorns). And it has a lot of dogs (Washington and Connecticut Huskies, Gonzaga, Butler and North Carolina-Asheville Bulldogs, Wofford and Boston U. Terriers).

But more than anything this tournament has a decidedly avian flavor.

There are Eagles (Morehead State and Marquette). Owls (Temple). Cardinals (Louisville). Blackbirds (Long Island). Peacocks (St. Peter's). Jayhawks (Kansas). And Roadrunners (Texas-San Antonio).

But sorry, no Osprey after North Florida was trounced by Belmont in the A-Sun final.

Buzzer Beater

When hungry in the Final Four city of Houston, The Minutes recommends a sensational steak at Sullivan's (68). There undoubtedly is great Tex-Mex to sample in the city, but The Minutes hasn't gotten there yet. This April, that's a must.

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