Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball — supersized to 68 for the NCAA tournament (first-time dancing shoes sold separately at Gardner-Webb and Abilene Christian):
Congrats, everyone, we made it. Survived and advanced through a season dogged by scandal — through a federal trial and convictions and indictments and subpoenas and suspensions. There will be more bad headlines to come, assuredly, but here in the precious present we have an actual 68-team bracket to fill out and 67 games' worth of viewing pleasure. This column is a Christian Dawkins-Free Safe Space.
The Minutes is here for your office-pool assistance, and to provide a roadmap through the next three weeks. Slap the floor, get in a stance, get the puppies organized and get ready for March Madness.
IT STARTS WITH DUKE
The Minutes' pick to win the whole thing is Duke (1), and frankly that hasn't changed since Nov. 6 — the night the Blue Devils dropped an 118-point bomb on Kentucky in Indianapolis. The only question was whether they would lose something after a certain sneaker tore open in late February, but those questions were answered in full in Charlotte last week.
Duke has the best player, the most talent and the most accomplished coach. Adequate building blocks.
But Duke isn't just the best equipped to win the championship. It also presents a mainstream draw the likes of which are rarely seen in modern college hoops. The Bunyanesque feats of Zion Williamson (2) make him the sport's most singular star since … when?
Maybe since Christian Laettner (3) was a senior at Duke in 1992? Yet even then, Laettner had teammates Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley absorbing some of the spotlight, to say nothing of LSU's Shaquille O'Neal.
Possibly since Patrick Ewing (4) at Georgetown in 1985? If not Ewing, maybe since Bill Walton (5) at UCLA in the early '70s?
Michael Jordan was the national Player of the Year in 1984, but he had Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon for company. Bird and Magic shared the stage with each other in 1979. There is no one occupying the same zip code as Zion when it comes to popular appeal this season.
And here's the thing about Laettner, Ewing and Walton — they were all four-year collegians, watched by fans in the NCAA tournament March after March after March. Zion has become the centerpiece of the sport in five months. It does not feel hyperbolic to say that Williamson's one-season impact on college basketball is the biggest we've ever seen.
So this is Zion's tournament, for as far as he can carry it on his massive shoulders. And the bet here is that he carries it all the way.
FIVE WAYS DUKE CAN LOSE
That said, there are no sure things in a single-elimination tourney. Duke is not unbeaten and not unbeatable, and it has enough flaws that could be fatal. Here are the five things that should keep Blue Devils fans anxious:
A meltdown from the 3-point line (6). At 30.2 percent accuracy outside the arc, Duke is the worst 3-point shooting team in the tournament and ranks 338th nationally out of 353 teams. At the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament last week, the Devils made just 24.6 percent of their threes — a terrible percentage. Yet they are not shy about hoisting them, with 37.6 percent of their shots on the season coming from long range. A good zone and a bad shooting night could cause a crisis.
A meltdown at the foul line (7). At 69 percent free-throw accuracy, Duke is 240th in the nation. Even more problematic, their two most frequent foul shooters are the two worst in the starting lineup — Williamson makes just 65.4 percent of his free throws and RJ Barrett checks in at 66.2. If the young guys have to make free throws to ice a game under win-or-go-home pressure, can they do it?
RJ Barrett (8) in Extra Mode, as the kids like to say. The Canadian freshman has been great this season, often serving as a capable alpha male who relishes having the ball in a big moment. But Barrett can also do too much on occasion — forcing shots and committing turnovers where he would be better served facilitating Williamson and fellow freshman Cam Reddish. Barrett took 48 shots in the ACC tourney to Williamson's 43, despite being much less efficient (he made 44 percent of them, to Zion's 77 percent). As a 30 percent 3-point shooter, Barrett should not be averaging six attempted threes per game.
Lack of interior depth (9). Center Marques Bolden's knee sprain in the regular-season finale against North Carolina did not keep the Devils from winning the ACC tourney — but it may be a factor in the next tourney if he is unable to return. Bolden isn't a great player, but he is a rim protector and rebounder of value. Without him, there are a couple of teams that could hurt Duke with their size and interior power.
Zion in foul trouble (10). He's only fouled out of one game, against Texas Tech in December, but he's picked up four fouls four other times — and his foul trouble at Louisville helped put the Devils in a 20-point hole before they rallied to win. Krzyzewski is more likely than most coaches to leave players on the floor with two fouls in the first half, and Williamson is a smart player who knows how to play with fouls. But he's also super aggressive, and after growing accustomed to ACC officiating the refs will be different in the tournament. Adjusting to their whistle will be important.
THE REST OF THE GREAT EIGHT
Duke is the leader, but the pack of pursuers is large and legitimate. The Blue Devils and seven other teams have separated themselves, as reflected in the selection committee's seedings. The national champion should come from this group:
North Carolina (11). What's to like: A plethora of scoring options; better defensively than many Tar Heels teams; veteran leadership; a coach who knows how to win in this tourney; lethal in transition. What's not to like: Shot selection can be iffy; Heels don't wear out a path to the foul line like some previous editions and don't have the usual low-post power.
Michigan State (12). What's to like: Excellent passing team that takes good shots and makes them; the usual Tom Izzo defensive commitment; a go-to star in guard Cassius Winston; the return of big man Nick Ward should be a huge assist inside. What's not to like: Spartans are loose with the ball, turning it over on 19 percent of their possessions; an over-reliance on Winston; any team capable of losing twice to Indiana and once to Illinois can be beaten by plenty of teams in this tournament.
Tennessee (13). What's to like: Tough, veteran team that will play with poise in pressure situations; star power in Grant Williams, who makes a living at the foul line; capable supporting cast around Williams, particularly forward Admiral Schofield and guard Jordan Bone; smart bunch not easily discouraged by a lack of size. What's not to like: That lack of size can create problems against the biggest teams in the tourney; since making the 2003 Final Four at Texas, coach Rick Barnes' NCAA track record is pretty brutal.
Kentucky (14). What's to like: Arguably the most complete team in the tournament in terms of size, athleticism and talent; sophomore P.J. Washington has developed into a star, but offensive balance makes it difficult to focus a defense on him; Calipari usually has his teams playing their best at this time of year. What's not to like: Not much NCAA experience on this roster; reliance on an all-freshman backcourt has its risks; with just 30 percent of its shots coming outside the arc, 3-point firepower is somewhat lacking.
Michigan (15). What's to like: Nation's No. 1 defensive team according got Ken Pomeroy's numbers; plenty of experienced players back from last year's Final Four run, buttressed by the addition of impact freshman Ignas Brazdeikis; John Beilein is one of the nation's finest X's-and-O's coaches. What's not to like: The Wolverines don't have much in the way of low-post options, don't crash the offensive glass and don't get to the foul line a lot; will valuable guard Charles Matthews return to top form after late-season ankle injury?
Gonzaga (16). What's to like: If Kentucky isn't the most complete team, the Zags might be; No. 1 offensive team in the nation, per Pomeroy; NBA-level talent, plus experience; rarely take bad shots. What's not to like: The shocking flop in the West Coast Conference title game was alarming; questions about the level of conference competition are not new but also not invalid.
Virginia (17). What's to like: The most all-around efficient team in the country, according to Pomeroy; veteran nucleus hungry for a Final Four run; deadly perimeter shooting team while also very good at guarding the perimeter; will frustrate many teams with tempo control. What's not to like: an absolutely brutal recent NCAA tourney track record (see below); rigid system can become a hindrance in tournament basketball; if the threes aren't falling, then what?
THE VIRGINIA REFERENDUM
If Duke hadn't hijacked the spotlight, the centerpiece of this tournament might well have been the Cavaliers. Over the previous five seasons, there has been no greater disconnect between regular-season performance and NCAA performance than Tony Bennett's team. To understate it, they have some proving to do.
It's not just the history-making disaster against UMBC (18) last year. It's also scoring 39 points and losing by 26 to Florida in the 2017 second round. And the Elite Eight meltdown against Syracuse in 2016, when a 14-point lead midway through the second half evaporated in minutes. There was the round-of-32 flameout against Michigan State in 2015, and the Sweet 16 loss to the Spartans as a No. 1 seed in '14.
Three times Bennett has had a No. 1 seed and not made the Final Four. Only one of those teams has even made a regional final. It's not quite as bad as Ray Meyer winning zero NCAA games with three straight No. 1 seeds from 1980-82 at DePaul. But it's painfully familiar to Virginia fans old enough to remember Terry Holland and Ralph Sampson getting No. 1 seeds in 1982 and 1983 and failing to make the Final Four.
So the onus is on Bennett to prove that his dawdling tempo and one-speed philosophy can work on the biggest stage. Once again, he has put his team in prime position. Can they come through at last?
Zion Williamson isn't the only guy worth watching in this tournament. There are plenty of others, and they come with an array of skill sets and abilities. Among the headliners:
Ja Morant (19), Murray State. It’s hard to remember the last time a mid-major player came into an NCAA tournament with more hype and attention than Morant. Perhaps Jimmer Fredette, although it's hard to consider BYU a true mid-major. Before that you could go back to perhaps Larry Bird from Indiana State. Morant is considered a top-five NBA draft pick, possessing outrageous athleticism (his dunk reel is fairly epic) and a high degree of skill (he's a deft passer and finisher with either hand). The sophomore is averaging 24.6 points and a nation-leading 10 assists per game, plus 5.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals.
Cassius Winston (20), Michigan State. Watching Winston dissect a defense is a study in smarts, savvy and confidence. The junior is a master at working the pick and roll and reading an opponent's rotations, always seeming one step ahead. And he's a clutch shot maker, averaging 19 points and 7.5 assists per game.
Coby White (21), North Carolina. His poof of hair will get your attention, and his brazen game will keep it. White possesses immense confidence for a freshman, sometimes to the degree of doing too much. But the 6-5 point guard is an explosive playmaker who can take over a game when he's hot — or keep the other team in it when he's not. White is second on the Tar Heels team in scoring (16.3) and first in assists (4.2) while also leading in turnovers (2.8) by a wide margin. He was just 1-of-12 from 3-point range at the ACC tourney.
Grant Williams (22), Tennessee. Nobody thought much of Williams coming out of high school, and for a while he considered going to Harvard. Now he's the SEC Player of the Year. Williams is the master of the half-inch, using his muscle and know-how to perform with great effectiveness inside at a listed 6-foot-7. He's also adept at drawing fouls, and he leads the SEC in free-throw attempts by a wide margin.
Carsen Edwards (23), Purdue. Undersized combo guard has done everything while helping the Boilermakers win a share of the Big Ten title. He leads the league in scoring at 23 per game, while also grabbing 3.5 rebounds, dishing out three assists and making 1.4 steals per game. If Purdue is going to break its longstanding Sweet 16 ceiling, Edwards will have to be the guy leading the way.
Dedric Lawson (24), Kansas. When the Jayhawks ran out of quality big men, Lawson had to add even more to his crowded plate. The 6-9 junior leads the team in scoring (19.1 points per game) and rebounding (10.3) and often has the job of guarding the opponent's best post player.
Brandon Clarke (25), Gonzaga. He languished in obscurity for two years at San Jose State, sat out last year as a transfer and now is flourishing with the Zags. Fellow forward Rui Hachimura was expected to be the star of this Gonzaga team, but Clarke has made him share that billing with his breakout season. The athletic Clarke has made 71 percent of his two-point shots, including 27 of his last 33, but his work at the other end of the court might be where he's best — Clarke is a finalist for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year.
Other players in the tournament who excel defensively:
Matisse Thybulle (26), Washington. The 6-5 guard is amazingly disruptive at the top of Mike Hopkins' zone defense, leading the nation in steals per game at 3.52. He's also the only player in the top 30 in blocks who is shorter than 6-8, checking in at 18th nationally with 2.3 rejections per game.
Tacko Fall (27), Central Florida. He is literally the largest thing in the Dance — 7-foot-6 and 310 pounds, a massive impediment in the middle for the Knights. Fall averages 2.48 blocks per game, and there's no telling how many shots he alters and drives he discourages with his interior presence.
Zavier Simpson (28), Michigan. Elite on-ball defender has left Big Ten point guards frustrated for the past two seasons. His pressure and ability to cut off penetration are keys to the Wolverines' No. 1-ranked defense.
Barry Brown (29), Kansas State. The Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year leads the nation's No. 4 defense, per Pomeroy. The 6-3 senior, Kansas State's career steals leader, can lock up a guard on the perimeter but also has the ability to mix it up with bigger opponents as well.
The best shooters in the Big Dance:
Fletcher Magee (30), Wofford. Magee has made more than 300 3-pointers in his career, including a nation-leading 151 this season. He's a career 43 percent shooter from outside the arc. Nineteen times this year, he's made five or more 3s in a game.
Markus Howard (31), Marquette. Might be the most likely player to have a 40-point game in this tourney. Howard has had three of those this season — 45 against Kansas State, 45 against Buffalo and 53 against Creighton. When he's on, abandon hope.
Myles Powell (32), Seton Hall. He's streaky, but the current streak into the Big Dance is a hot one. Powell has made at least four 3-pointers in five straight games and is 21 of 50 during that stretch. He led the Pirates to the Big East tournament final.
Three players not above using some dramatics to sell a foul call:
Grant Williams, Tennessee. Nobody spends more time on the floor than Williams — partly due to effort and a willingness to mix it up inside, but also because he will take the occasional dive. Ask Vanderbilt fans about his 23-for-23 night at the foul line against the Commodores in January.
Brad Davison (33), Wisconsin. He was a charge-drawing maniac last year as a freshman, and he drew five in one game against North Carolina State early this season. But some of those have been sell jobs, and the calls have not been coming as frequently as the year has progressed. Some TV analysts have made note of Davison's occasional flop jobs.
Scottie James (34), Liberty. Perpetrator of the unquestioned Flop of the Year in college basketball in the Atlantic Sun tournament championship game.
SHORT-TIMERS IN BRACKETVILLE
Here are a half-dozen teams that have had big seasons but could meet bad, early endings this week:
Mississippi (35). Kermit Davis won SEC Coach of the Year for his work reviving the Rebels and earning just their third NCAA bid in the last 17 seasons. But Ole Miss has been leaking oil for about a month now, having lost five of its last seven. The Rebels are short, vulnerable defensively and looked like a tired team in their one game at the SEC tourney.
Louisville (36). Just about everything in the above paragraph can be said of the Cardinals — new coach Chris Mack has done a great job with a team not expected to be this good, but reality has arrived in the last month. Louisville also has lost five of its last seven, and both victories are over a really bad Notre Dame team. The Cards don't have the guards for March.
LSU (37). The Tigers won an SEC title and lost their head coach almost simultaneously earlier this month, with Will Wade being suspended after a Yahoo Sports report about Wade's "strong-ass offer" to a recruit caught on an FBI wiretap. He didn't coach LSU in its one-and-done SEC tourney appearance and seems unlikely to coach the Tigers this week. This is no way to enter March Madness.
Marquette (38). An excellent season ended in a 1-5 tailspin marked by a succession of blown leads late in games. And the Big East was pretty soft this year. If the Eagles couldn't win late-season games in this league, they might not win any this week.
Nevada (39). After a 24-1 start, the Wolf Pack wobbled in 29-4, sharing the Mountain West regular-season title with Utah State and then losing to San Diego State in the semifinal of the league tourney. They also trailed most of the game in the MWC quarters against a bad Boise State. There is no denying Nevada's talent, but something seems off.
Baylor (40). Few programs have been as reliably bad in tournament basketball as the Bears in recent years. They've lost their first Big 12 tournament game three years in a row, and were upset three straight years in the NCAAs from 2015-17. (They went to the NIT last year.) This particular Baylor team staggers into the bracket on a four-game losing streak.
Five teams from outside the power structure who have the stuff for a successful NCAA tournament run:
Buffalo (41). The Bulls aren't sneaking up on anyone — they shocked Arizona in this tourney last year and have had an incredible 2018-19 season, going 31-3. This is no double-digit seed. But even when warned what Buffalo brings to the table, it will be a tough out. This is a senior-laden team will run and gun with anyone.
Wofford (42). Like Buffalo, the Terriers dominated their conference — they went 18-0 in the Southern Conference and then won the tournament as well. They're 29-4, an elite shooting team and won't have to fight their way out of a bad seed.
New Mexico State (43). Are the Aggies (30-4) the deepest team ever? No, really — ever? Thirteen players average double-figure minutes. Ten different players have led the team in scoring at least once. The scouting report for a team facing NMSU for the first time will be a nightmare to put together.
Utah State (44). The Mountain West co-champs and tourney champs have won 10 straight and 17 of their last 18, led by junior Sam Merrill (21.2 points, four rebounds, 4.2 assists per game). Great work by first-year coach Craig Smith, who came to Logan from South Dakota.
Vermont (45). A cathartic and dominant run through the America East tourney, after being upset by UMBC last year, should have the Catamounts in a confident frame of mind for this week. Junior Anthony Lamb has been very good for three seasons, but rarely better than in the AE tourney (26.7 points, six rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2 steals and 1.3 blocks per game).
COACHING UNDER PRESSURE
Every coach will feel the weight of March this week. These six will feel it most:
Tony Bennett (46), Virginia. The note earlier in this column about the Cavaliers' travails sums up everything Bennett is trying to put behind him.
Rick Barnes (47), Tennessee. He's been to 23 NCAA tournaments yet only seen the second weekend three times — and not for a lack of talent. Barnes was the guy who couldn't get Kevin Durant to the Sweet 16. His last seven NCAA appearances have ended in the first or second round. For a Tennessee program dreaming of its first-ever Final Four and loaded with veteran players, there is urgency this year.
Tony Benford (48), LSU. The 54-year-old interim coach replacing Will "Strong-Ass Offer" Wade has a very talented team, but this is a tough spot. It didn't go too well for Benford at the SEC tournament, where the Tigers were upset by Florida and he got a technical foul during a key juncture of the game.
John Calipari (49), Kentucky. From 2008-15, Calipari went to five Final Fours. He's come up short the past three seasons, and it's now seven years since his lone national title. That's a long time in Kentucky years. They're not paying him $9.3 million to make the Sweet 16.
Bill Self (50), Kansas. Better make some hay before the posse arrives. As successful as he's been, Self's future would seem to be in doubt going forward.
Mike Krzyzewski (51), Duke. At age 72, there are only so many rodeos left. And he has the most talented team. And if the NBA changes its minimum-age rule and the future Zion Williamsons are free to go pro instead of college, it will change the current Duke model.
FIVE ANNOYING THINGS YOU WILL SEE ON TV
The games will be great, except for the following:
Too many replay reviews for high elbows (52). This is the basketball version of targeting. The intent is good — player safety — but the implementation has become laborious.
Too many replay reviews for hook-and-hold fouls (53). See above. Especially since nobody seems completely sure what a hook-and-hold is.
Too many replay reviews, period (54). Replay has become a crutch, especially for out-of-bounds calls. Going to the monitor will slow down the games — but remember: Even a long basketball game is going to be at least 30 minutes shorter than a short college football game.
Players rolling their shorts down from the top and up from the bottom (55). Long shorts went out a few years ago, but the shortening of the shorts has taken a weird twist this season — not only are some players rolling down the waist, they've taken to rolling up the legs and creating what could only be called an adult diaper look. It's not great.
Bruce Pearl (56) perspiring through his suit. With Sean Miller out of this year's field, the sweatiest coach will be the guy who just won the SEC tournament.
Five guys on the way up in the profession, and a tournament win or two would accelerate that process:
Nate Oats (57), Buffalo. He's a 44-year-old former math teacher who inherited a good program from Bobby Hurley and has made it better. The Bulls are 58-12 the past two years and have made the Big Dance in three of Oats' four seasons on the job.
LeVelle Moton (58), North Carolina Central. Moton, also 44, has now taken the Eagles to three straight NCAA tourneys and four in the last six years. The school had never been to the NCAAs before Moton arrived.
Travis DeCuire (59), Montana. The Grizzlies are a back-to-back NCAA team under the 48-year-old DeCuire, a former Mike Montgomery protégé at California. Somehow, DeCuire has not become the coach at Cal at some point in the last four years. But someone should hire him.
John Brannen (60), Northern Kentucky. After a 9-21 debut at NKU, the 45-year-old Brannen has gone 92-29 and made the Big Dance for the second time in three seasons. The Norse and Wright State have set up shop at the top of the Horizon League.
Matt McMahon (61), Murray State. Like DeCuire, McMahon has earned back-to-back NCAA bids. Yes, it's nice to have Ja Morant leading your team — but McMahon was one of the very few people who saw Morant's talents and recruited him. The 40-year-old is 53-10 since Morant arrived on campus.
How about a big Bracketville welcome to the two new arrivals this season:
Gardner-Webb (62), winner of the Big South, earns its first NCAA bid in its 17th season as a Division I program. Prior to that, the Runnin' Bulldogs were in Division II, and before that they were a junior college.
Abilene Christian (63), winner of the Southland, earns its first NCAA bid in its sixth season of Division I. The Wildcats were a Division II power in the 1960s and had some sporadic success thereafter before joining the Southland in 2013.
WHO IS MISSING
Teams that missed the Dance for the first time in a long time:
Arizona (64) is out for the first time since 2012, and just the third time since 1984. What happens next in Tucson is anyone's guess.
Wichita State (65) is out for the first time since 2011. A rebuilding year plus the second season in the American Athletic Conference combined to leave the Shockers on the sideline. At 19-14, Gregg Marshall's streak of nine straight 25-win seasons is over as well.
When hungry and thirsty in the excellent (albeit chilly) Final Four city of Minneapolis (66), The Minutes recommends a steak at landmark Murray's Restaurant (67). But that's not all — a visit to Surly Brewing Co. (68) is a must as well. Try a Todd the Axe Man IPA and thank The Minutes later for touting you on a religious experience.
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