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Forde Minutes: League tourney previews, picks (Yahoo Sports)


Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (dancing shoes sold separately at Jacksonville State, Winthrop, Wichita State and Florida Gulf Coast):

The familiar rhythms of March have arrived, with tournament games being played just about constantly from noon ET until nearly midnight PT. It is a glorious stretch, but this year some of the familiarity has been replaced by manufactured marketing.

Geography, tradition and in some cases common sense have been tossed. This is College Sports, Inc., in the 21st century.

The Atlantic Coast Conference tournament will be played this week in Brooklyn (1). Tobacco Road meets the Sweathogs. It’s handy for a bunch of Syracuse fans and some Duke MBAs who live in Park Slope. That’s about it. Distance from the league headquarters: 530 miles.

The Big Ten tournament will be played in Washington, D.C. (2). A conference defined for more than a century by its Midwestern ethos is wandering inside the Beltway, using the 3-year-old membership of Maryland as an excuse to seek out an East Coast media market. Maybe Jim Delany will feel presidential and wear a “Make The Big Ten Great Again” hat, because his league is far from it this season.

And the Ivy League has a tournament for the first time in its 60-year basketball history. The site is at least a classic one: The Palestra (3) in Philadelphia. Of course, the first time the Ivy subjects its regular-season champion to the double jeopardy that is a conference tourney, that champ is undefeated in league play. If Princeton (21-6, 14-0) loses, it won’t go over well with anyone who wants to see the conference put its best team into the Big Dance.

Location Sensibility, on a scale of 1-5: 3. The tourney is in Hartford, Conn. While that doesn’t do much for the teams in the Southwest and Deep South, it’s at least the backyard of the league’s premier basketball program.

Top seed: SMU. The Mustangs (27-4, 17-1) have had a dominant season and bring a 13-game winning streak to Hartford. Six of those wins are by 20 or more points, including the past two.
Spoiler: Cincinnati (27-4, 16-2) clearly is the second-best team in the league, but Mick Cronin’s best offensive team has started to bog down in that area late in the season.

Minutes Pick: SMU (5). A rubber match with the Bearcats would be fitting, since those two have outpaced the rest of the conference.

Location Sensibility, on a scale of 1-5: 3. The site is Pittsburgh, which is a fine city and fits well with the league’s geographic footprint. But the local school, Duquesne, is the 14th seed and should exit quickly and quietly.

Top seed: Dayton (24-6, 15-3) locked up the league last week by beating VCU. But as good as the Flyers have been in recent years, they haven’t won the A-10 tourney in five previous tries under Archie Miller.

Spoiler: Rhode Island reached a fight-or-flight moment Feb. 15 after a dismal home loss to Fordham. Since then the Rams have won five straight, perhaps putting themselves within a single win of securing an NCAA bid.

Minutes pick: Rhode Island (7). Danny Hurley might be positioning himself for a high-major job if he gets the Rams into the field of 68.

Location Sensibility, on a scale of 1-5: 1. If you’re going to uproot and go to New York, at least get the Garden. Barclays Arena, while nice enough, is a poor substitute.

Top seed: North Carolina (26-6, 14-4). Don’t overanalyze the Tar Heels’ loss last Monday at Virginia, their second road game in three days. They might be the team to beat nationally, not just within their conference.

Spoiler: Louisville (24-7, 12-6). Rick Pitino was 25-4 in postseason games from 2012-15. The school self-imposed a ban on last year’s team, and the fourth-seeded Cardinals will be stoked for this tournament after a season left out.

Player who could carry an underdog: John Collins (9), Wake Forest. Big man had 12 straight games scoring at least 20 points from Jan. 18 through March 1. He also had eight double-doubles in that stretch. If you want to know why the Demon Deacons (18-12, 9-9) are within reach of their first NCAA bid since 2010, he’s why.

Minutes pick: North Carolina (10). From 1997-2011, Duke or Carolina won 14 out of 15 tourneys. Since then, just one out of five (Carolina last year). This will make it two in row.

Big 12 (11)

Location Sensibility, on a scale of 1-5: 5. Kansas City is the league’s traditional site, makes geographic sense, is a good city for visiting fans and offers a proximity advantage that the league champion deserves.

Top seed: Kansas (28-3, 16-2) won the regular-season title. Kansas always wins the regular-season title. Phog Allen was coaching Adolph Rupp the last time Kansas didn’t win the regular-season title.

Spoiler: There could be several. Kansas’ dominance is belied by the number of close calls the Jayhawks have had, and their lack of depth doesn’t lend itself to three games in three days. West Virginia (24-7, 12-6) earned the No. 2 seed and does have the depth for the grind.

Player who could carry an underdog: Monte Morris (12), Iowa State. Outstanding point guard who possesses the clutch gene and will bring a senior’s sense of urgency with him to K.C.

Minutes pick: West Virginia (13). Teams facing the Mountaineers’ withering pressure in the semifinals and final will not enjoy the experience. But first, WVU might have to beat Texas Tech in the quarterfinals, and that hasn’t been easy – the two teams split this season, and both games went into overtime.

Big East (14)

Location Sensibility: 5. Despite the league’s near-death and radical realignment a few years ago, it has tenaciously hung onto Madison Square Garden as the site of its tourney. That’s been big.

Top seed: Villanova (28-3, 15-3) easily distanced itself from a pretty solid pack, winning the league by three games. Jay Wright’s team should have a legit chance at defending its national title in the next tournament.

Spoiler: If the objective is beating ‘Nova, Butler (23-7, 12-6) is the team best equipped to do it. The Bulldogs swept the season series and are the No. 2 seed – but they could have a semifinal game against a Creighton team that beat them twice this season.

Minutes pick: Villanova (15). One thing last year’s squad did not do was win the Big East tourney. Expect the Wildcats to be motivated to claim that hardware this time around, then focus on the repeat quest.

Jay Wright and Villanova once again look like title contenders after finishing their regular season 28-3. (Getty)

Jay Wright and Villanova once again look like title contenders after finishing their regular season 28-3. (Getty)

Big Sky (16)

Top seed: North Dakota (19-9, 14-4) is trying to earn its first Big Dance bid in school history. The Flying Hawks have won seven of their past eight games entering the tourney.

Top threat to the top seed: Weber State (17-12, 12-6) has been to two of the past three NCAA tournaments and eliminated North Dakota in three of the past four Big Sky tourneys.

Minutes pick: North Dakota.

Big Ten (17)

Location Sensibility, on a scale of 1-5: 1. This event belongs in Indianapolis and Chicago, perhaps with occasional outsourcing to Minneapolis, Milwaukee or Detroit. Going to the East Coast is silly – and will get sillier next year when the league holds the tournament a week earlier just to grab the Garden.

Top seed: Purdue. The Boilermakers (25-6, 14-4) won eight of their past nine to capture the league by two games over Maryland and Wisconsin. They have the Big Ten’s best player in Caleb Swanigan, and have surrounded him with improved perimeter firepower (five players have made 40 or more 3-pointers this season). But Matt Painter hasn’t won this tournament since 2009.

Spoiler: Outside of Rutgers, Penn State and Nebraska, it wouldn’t be a complete shock to see anyone win this tournament. They’ve all had their stretches of quality play – and they’ve all had their mystifying losses.

Player who could carry an underdog: Derrick Walton (18), Michigan. The senior has had some huge games down the stretch: 18 points, 16 assists and five steals Sunday against Nebraska; 17 points, 11 rebounds and five assists in a win over Purdue; and a five-game stretch scoring 20 or more in late January and early February. The Wolverines are dangerous, and he’s got the ball in his hands all the time.

Minutes pick: Wisconsin (19). Yes, the Badgers have been largely terrible for the past three weeks. But here is The Minutes’ theory on that: With four senior starters who have been to multiple Final Fours, the latter stages of the regular season can become dog days more to be endured than enjoyed. (Florida’s veteran-laden, defending national champions lost three of four in late-February 2007.) Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes, Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown know the time is now, and finally showed some urgency Sunday in dispatching Minnesota by 17 points. We’ll see if it carries over to D.C.

[Tourney Pick’em is open! Sign up now | Bracket Big Board]

Big West (20)

Top seed: UC-Irvine. The Anteaters (19-13, 12-4) are one victory away from a fifth straight 20-win season, and three away from their second NCAA bid in three seasons.

Top threat to the top seed: Cal State-Fullerton, if only because the third-seeded Titans’ point guard is the excellently named Lionheart Leslie (10.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.6 steals per game).

Minutes pick: UC-Irvine. The Anteaters have a Lion tamer in the league’s No. 1 defense.

Conference USA (21)

Top seed: Middle Tennessee State. The Blue Raiders (27-4, 17-1) utterly dominated the league and should be in the NCAA tourney regardless. You might recall they took down No. 2 seed Michigan State in the Big Dance last year, and this team is better.

Top threat to the top seed: UTEP (14-16, 12-6) was atrocious early, then finished the season on a 12-3 run – with the three losses by a total of five points. And UTEP is the only league team to beat Middle Tennessee. The Miners’ coach, Tim Floyd, knows a thing or two.

Minutes pick: Middle Tennessee.

Ivy League (22)

Top seed: Princeton (21-6, 14-0) won the league by four games and hasn’t lost since Dec. 20. In conference play, the Tigers lead the Ivy in both offensive and defensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy.

Top threat to the top seed: Penn (13-14, 6-8) has won six of its last eight games and gets Princeton on its home court in the semifinals.

Minutes pick: Princeton.

Mid-American (23)

Top seed: Akron (24-7, 14-4). The Zips struggled late, dropping three of their past five, including two at home. But they do have a 4-1 record against the other teams with first-round byes (Ball State, Ohio and Buffalo).

Top threat to the top seed: Western Michigan. Yes, the Broncos (16-15, 11-7) have to win four games in four days to take the MAC. And a month ago they were 7-15. But they closed the regular season with eight straight victories and are already through the first round of the tournament after holding off Miami (Ohio) on Monday.

Minutes pick: Western Michigan.

Mid-Eastern Atlantic (24)

Top seed: North Carolina Central (22-8, 13-3) has won three of the last four regular-season titles, but only one MEAC tournament in that time (2014). The Eagles wobbled late this year, losing their last two games – including the finale against a North Carolina A&T team that hadn’t beaten a Division I opponent all year. Does not inspire confidence.

Top threat to the top seed: History says Hampton (14-15, 11-5), which has won the past two MEAC tournaments. But The Minutes says Morgan State (14-15, 11-5), which is coached by Todd Bozeman, has won four of its past five and has a hot scorer in Tiwian Kendley (22.7 points per game past three).

Minutes pick: Morgan State.

Mountain West (25)

Top seed: Nevada (25-6, 14-4) has its most wins and first league title since 2012. The Wolf Pack enters the tourney on a six-game winning streak, but the last time Nevada won more than a single game in a league tourney was 2009, when the coach was Mark Fox.

Top threat to the top seed: Fresno State. The fourth-seeded Bulldogs (19-11, 11-7) won the tourney last year and enter this one clicking, having won five straight. They could have a semifinal game against Nevada, and Fresno swept the league champs in the regular season.

Minutes pick: Fresno State.

Pac-12 (26)

Location Sensibility, on a scale of 1-5: 5. Las Vegas is a legitimately neutral site that is easy to travel to and obviously a favorite fan destination. Until the Pac-12 decides to move its tourney to Maui, this will work perfectly fine.

Top seed: Oregon. The Ducks (27-4, 16-2) have had a great conference run, but the non-conference slate actually yields very little that helps from an NCAA seeding standpoint – they have no wins prior to Christmas over teams that would earn an at-large NCAA bid. In conference, Oregon walloped Arizona and edged UCLA at home, but the only road win over a team that is likely in the field right now was at USC.

Spoiler: UCLA (28-3, 15-3) has the most NBA talent, the most firepower and a steadily increasing desire to play defense. But the Bruins are young; how will they handle postseason pressure?

Player who could carry an underdog: Reid Travis (27), Stanford. The Cardinal (14-16, 6-12) would have to win the automatic bid to go dancing, but Travis is a handful. The junior strongman leads the team in scoring (17.2 points per game) and rebounding (8.8) and has dropped six 20-10 games on opponents this season.

Minutes pick: UCLA (28). The Bruins are red hot – on a nine-game winning streak, six of those wins by double digits – and confident. Winning at Arizona on Feb. 25 was the most impressive victory of the season in the Pac-12.

Lonzo Ball and the Bruins head into the Pac-12 tournament with plenty of confidence. (Getty)

Lonzo Ball and the Bruins head into the Pac-12 tournament with plenty of confidence. (Getty)

Southeastern (29)

Location Sensibility, on a scale of 1-5: 3. Nashville is a great city but it becomes so overrun by Kentucky fans streaming south across the Tennessee border that you forget the rest of the league is actually invited. Atlanta offers greater neutrality. But then again, Big Blue buys the largest share of tickets there, too.

Top seed: Kentucky. The Wildcats wobbled for a while in late January and early February, but won their final eight games. During that stretch center Bam Adebayo has made 67 percent of his shots from the field.

Spoiler: Vanderbilt won five of its past six games, with the only loss being a close one at Kentucky after leading most of the way. The Commodores will certainly bring adequate motivation with them on the short bus ride downtown, since they’re sitting squarely on the NCAA bubble.

Player who could carry an underdog: J.J. Frazier (30), Georgia. The diminutive point guard has been spectacular all season, but really cranked it up when big man Yante Maten hurt a knee against Kentucky on Feb. 18. In the Bulldogs’ past five games, Frazier has averaged 29.6 points.

Minutes pick: Kentucky (31). John Calipari is 16-3 in the Big Blue Invitational, as the SEC tourney is sometimes called. He should be 19-3 by Selection Sunday.

Southland (32)

Top seed: New Orleans. The Privateers (18-11, 13-5) are a great story, winning the league after several years when the program (and entire university) were considered on life support. But late losses to Northwestern State and Southeastern Louisiana create some doubt about UNO’s postseason viability.

Top threat to the top seed: Houston Baptist. The Huskies (17-12, 12-6) closed the regular season on a nine-game winning streak, scoring 81 or more points in eight of those games.

Minutes pick: Houston Baptist.

Sun Belt (33)

Top seed: Texas-Arlington. The Mavericks (24-7, 14-4) endured a gruesome non-conference schedule (four home games, nine on the road, each in groups of three) and came through it with wins over Saint Mary’s and Texas. Then they rolled through the league, going undefeated in February.

Top threat to the top seed: Louisiana Lafayette (20-11, 10-8) finished the regular season on a six-game winning streak, including an upset of UT-Arlington on Saturday.

Minutes pick: UT-Arlington.

Southwestern Athletic (34)

Top seed: Texas Southern (20-11, 16-2) has come to dominate the SWAC under former Indiana coach Mike Davis. His league record in five seasons: 76-14. The Jaguars have won the league tournament twice in that time.

Top threat to the top seed: Alcorn State (16-13, 13-5) pieced together an 11-game winning streak from mid-January through February. Alcorn was 0-2 against Texas Southern but both games were close – one decided in overtime and the other by two points.

Minutes pick: Texas Southern.

[Tourney Pick’em is open! Sign up now | Bracket Big Board]

Western Athletic (35)

Top seed: Cal State-Bakersfield (21-8, 12-2) had a late 10-game winning streak, half of which came on the road, to take the league title. Rod Barnes’ team won the tourney last year to make its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance, and may have the squad to make it a repeat.

Top threat to the top seed: With Grand Canyon not yet eligible to compete for the title, New Mexico State (25-5, 11-3) is the only other realistic choice to win the WAC. The Aggies faltered late, losing three of their past six, but also reeled off 20 straight wins during the year.

Minutes pick: Cal State-Bakersfield.

FIVE QUESTIONS WITH A COACH

Each week, The Minutes has gleaned some insight from a coach about an aspect of their job. This week’s interview subject: Richard Pitino (36), Minnesota. The topic: bouncing back from a difficult season.

The Gophers have gone from 23 losses and a lot of off-court turmoil last season to 23 wins this year, a stunning turnaround that has put them back in the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2013 and first time under Pitino.

Richard Pitino and the Gophers have bounced back from an abysmal 2016 to finish fourth in the Big Ten this season. (Getty)

Richard Pitino and the Gophers have bounced back from an abysmal 2016 to finish fourth in the Big Ten this season. (Getty)

FM: What was the mindset you took into the offseason after such a tumultuous year?

RP: The most important thing was with our four key returnees, making sure they stayed intact and believed. When you have a tough year and uncertainty about your future, it’s not out of the realm of possibility for there to be a mass exodus. There was so much uncertainty and negativity locally, it was hard. We had to get everyone to believe that what they signed up for was going to come true.

FM: At the same time, you were blending in several important newcomers, both freshmen and transfers. How did that process work?

RP: It was important to understand that it’s a new team. It’s not like everyone was back from last year. (Milwaukee transfer) Akeem Springs is getting 26 minutes a game in conference play, (freshman) Amir Coffey is getting 36 minutes, (Illinois State transfer) Reggie Lynch is playing major minutes. So we had to really, really get the returnees to help them as much as they could. But there was no ego involved, because they all just wanted to win after what they went through the year before.

FM: How did you personally get through that period, with people calling for your job?

RP: It was hard. There was just nothing you do to calm everyone down. Talk is cheap at that point – we just had to shut up and get to the season. I always felt we would turn the corner in year four. It was a hard fight to get everyone’s respect back.

FM: And now what is the message this week going into the Big Ten tournament as a No. 4 seed?

RP: Obviously, we didn’t play great offensively the last 10 minutes at Wisconsin (a 66-49 loss Sunday). We’ve got to address that. But taking a step back, we have to appreciate the fact that we didn’t lose in February and we got a double bye – that’s very, very special here, especially for a team that was picked 12th, 13th in the league. Now we’ve just got to get fired up to play Friday.

FM: Peeking a week ahead, there is a chance you could be a No. 7 NCAA seed and your dad’s team, Louisville, could be a No. 2 seed. This is the first time a father and son have both coached teams into the tournament. What would you think if the selection committee put your teams together in the bracket for a potential second-round game?

RP: I’m very grateful and very proud that we’re going to the NCAA tournament. I would hope they do not do that. Some people may look at it and say that would be great. I don’t think it would be great.

UNDER THE RADAR LOVE

Much respect – and a fond March farewell – to Chris Clemons (37), the 5-foot-9 guard who nearly gunned Campbell to the NCAA tournament. A team that went 14-16 in the regular season reeled off three straight Big South tournament wins, advancing to the final before falling short against top seed Winthrop. Along the way Clemons averaged 35.2 points per game, highlighted by a 51-point bomb he dropped on No. 2 seed UNC-Asheville in a quarterfinal shocker. Clemons went down firing against Winthrop, hoisting up 27 shots – 18 of them 3-pointers.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Ray Harper (38), Jacksonville State. He’s become the king of the conference tourney, going 14-3 in those tournaments with bad teams at Western Kentucky and now Jax State, which earned its first-ever bid Saturday by winning the Ohio Valley Conference tournament. Harper’s league tourney winning percentage as a Division I coach is .824. His regular-season winning percentage as a DI coach is .562.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

King Rice (39), Monmouth. The Minutes feels for Rice, whose Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champs were assigned a true road game in the tourney semifinals at Siena. That’s a tough break – but a team that goes 17-1 in the league should be able to handle that. Instead, for the second straight season, Monmouth has followed a MAAC title with a painful tourney pratfall that likely will keep it out of the Big Dance.

BUZZER BEATER

If they’re going to be nutty enough to put the ACC tournament in New York, then you might as well send the fans into Manhattan for barbecue. The Minutes recommends Virgil’s (40) in Times Square. Get the wings, get the ribs, get a craft beer and thank The Dash later.