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Forde Minutes: Powerhouses Back in Business, First Wave of Conference Tourneys and More

This week's Forde Minutes looks at familiar faces back on the scene and late bubble arrivals, plus makes picks for 13 mid-major league tournaments.

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball, where any Coronavirus-inspired talk of holding March Madness without fans is prematurely alarmist:

HERE COME THE REGULARS

What, did you really think we’d have a March without the following teams getting their stuff together and coming into the money month looking dangerous?

Kentucky (1). Winners of eight in a row and 12 of 13, making the usual transformation from early-season dysfunction to stretch-run dominance. Sometime after Christmas, Kentucky gets it together just about every season—but this year it looked shakier than most early on.

John Calipari got twitchy when a reporter mentioned the E-word—Evansville—Saturday, making excuses for a November loss to a team that went winless in the Missouri Valley Conference. If you want to know why the Wildcats are still lingering in the mid-20s in the Pomeroy Ratings and 14th in the NET, four spots behind 10-loss Arizona, what goes down as the worst loss by any ranked team has something to do with it.

But Kentucky has found its way with a four-player core—guards Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley and Tyrese Maxey, plus big man Nick Richards. They’ve done it a bit differently, covering up some weaknesses on defense and in three-point shooting, but it’s working. Quickley, in particular, has played at a very high level during the current winning streak. Kentucky also has outscored opponents by 163 points at the foul line, making 79.5% of its attempts.

One nagging concern: The Southeastern Conference is the weakest of the Power-6 leagues according to the Pomeroy Ratings. It is on track to earn just four or five NCAA tournament bids, with only the Wildcats likely among the top-four seeds in any region. By the round of 32, Kentucky could be facing tougher competition than it has in several weeks, if not months.

Michigan State (2). In every Spartans season, there is a crisis. And there is almost always a solution to the crisis come March. Oftentimes the worse it looks mid-crisis the better it ends up post-crisis.

This season there were crises, plural, that threatened to derail a season that began as the consensus No. 1 team in the nation. They started with the shutdown of Josh Langford due to injury, after Langford was expected to be Tom Izzo’s second option offensively. They continued when star point guard Cassius Winston struggled at varying points in the season, appearing overburdened by carrying everyone else on his back.

But, right on time, here comes Izzo, authoring Michigan State’s first three-game winning streak since early January. Here comes Winston playing spectacularly once again, averaging 21 points and seven assists during the streak, making 12 of 15 threes. Here comes Xavier Tillman as the solidified second option, with a 14-point, 12-rebound, six-assist effort in Michigan State’s big beatdown of Maryland in College Park Saturday. Here come the role guys, making contributions as needed. (Freshmen Malik Hall and Rocket Watts have made a well-timed emergence.)

One nagging concern: Izzo knows the way to the Final Four, having been there eight times. But if you’re looking for a team to write into the last line of your bracket as national champion, well, the Spartans have had difficulty finishing since 2000. Izzo is 1-6 in Final Four games after that last national title.

Virginia (3). It’s not unusual for the Cavaliers to roll through February with a 7-1 record. The unusual part were the December and January travails that preceded it—a 7-6 record that included many bad losses. Unlike Kentucky and Michigan State, Virginia didn’t even look like a realistic candidate to make the tourney itself. Now, it is in comfortably.

Tony Bennett’s team was, as always, tough as nails defensively, but absolutely putrid when it came to offensive execution. Even now, the ‘Hoos shoot terrible percentages, commit too many turnovers and don’t get to the foul line with any regularity. But they’ve cobbled together just enough scoring with the usual defensive vigilance and tempo control to do what Virginia does.

Namely, the Cavs have won the close ones. Five of the wins in their current six-game streak are by three points or less. A series of smothering defensive stands in the late going beat Duke Saturday; a Kihei Clark three with two seconds left beat Virginia Tech; they scored just one point in the final 2:40 but held on to beat Pittsburgh; a three with a second left took down North Carolina; and there was the infamous slog past Notre Dame, in which Virginia scored five points in the last 11:45 of regulation and overtime and still won.

One nagging concern: Teams previously ranked No. 220 nationally in offensive efficiency include American (2019), LIU Brooklyn (2018), Coastal Carolina (2017) and Santa Clara (2016). Not a great track record of NCAA success from that spot.

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LATE BUBBLE ARRIVALS

The NCAA tournament bubble is a rundown neighborhood most years, and maybe more than ever this March. It doesn’t take a lot to make a modest run and get into contention for a bid that seemed improbable a few weeks earlier. Four teams have pushed their way into the conversation, better late than never:

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UCLA (4). How it got here: the Bruins have won seven in a row, most recently taking down Arizona State and Arizona and causing Sean Miller to foam at the mouth and at the officials in Pauley Pavilion. Mick Cronin is new in Westwood, but he’s putting his stamp on the program—UCLA is starting to beat up opponents on the offensive glass and create turnovers.

Best lines on the résumé: Currently atop of the Pac-12 standings at 12-5; own a sweep of Arizona; six Quadrant 1 wins.

Worst lines on the résumé: A No. 76 NCAA NET rating is no way to live; the start to the season was absolutely gruesome, including a Quad 4 loss to Cal State Fullerton and a Quad 3 loss to Hofstra (though it should be noted that the Pride have won the Colonial Athletic Association); zero non-conference wins against the NET top 100.

Chances of making the field of 68: Fifty-fifty, with at least one more win needed. If the Bruins beat USC Saturday to clinch at least a share of the Pac-12 title, that would put precedent on their side—the regular-season champions of Power 6 leagues are very rarely left out of the tournament. But the committee seems to love its NET, and the NET says nyet.

Texas (5). How it got here: a four-game winning streak, highlighted by wins over West Virginia at home and Texas Tech on the road. That brings the Longhorns to 18-11 overall, 8-8 in the Big 12, with games remaining at Oklahoma and home against Oklahoma State. Shaka Smart had to replace injured big man Jericho Sims and guard Jase Febres, and the result has been shockingly good. That freed up more minutes for his freshman class, and the different rotations have paid dividends.

Best lines on the résumé: road wins over Texas Tech and Purdue; a 4-4 conference road record; zero Quad 4 or 4 losses.

Worst lines on the résumé: Overall just 6-11 against in Quad 1 and 2 games; until last week the Longhorns had an 0-9 record against likely tournament teams from Power-6 conferences.

Chances of making the field of 68: A sweep of the week would be a big boost. The 'Horns have no bad losses but few big victories and an iffy NET rating of 59, so they need to keep winning. A split this week is mandatory to even have a chance—the last 27 Big 12 teams that went at least .500 in league play have all made the Big Dance.

Providence (6). How it got here: A four-game winning streak, including victories over league-leading Seton Hall and big dog Villanova (the latter on the road), pushed the Friars to 10-6 in a deep Big East. There isn’t a lot of offensive skill on this team, but they compensate with defensive will.

Best lines on the résumé: Providence has beaten all the top teams in its league at least once; seven Quad 1 victories; a 22-point thumping of Texas should it come down to a nitty-gritty contest with the Longhorns.

Worst lines on the résumé: November was a dumpster fire, with losses to Northwestern, Penn, Long Beach State and Charleston—three Quad 3 losses and one Quad 4, if you’re scoring at home.

Chances of making the field of 68: The Friars should be in at this point, with the win at Villanova pushing them into safe territory. But it would be best not to lose twice at home this week (Xavier and DePaul).

Clemson (7). How it got here: The Tigers took down Florida State Saturday, giving them victories over the three highest-rated ACC teams in the NET—the Seminoles, Duke and Louisville. With four wins in their last five games they’ve clawed to 9-9 in the league, 15-13 overall.

Best lines on the résumé: No bubble teams have three better wins than Clemson’s, against a trio of teams in the NET top 11, but all three were at home.

Worst lines on the résumé: An 11-13 record against Quads 1-3; several home losses to middling-or-lower ACC teams; a No. 73 NET rating.

Chances of making the field of 68: Still a long way to go. Wins this week over the Techs (Virginia and Georgia) would seem non-negotiable, and then probably another win or two in the ACC tournament.

CAN YOU TRUST THEM?

Four teams that are going to have high NCAA tournament seeds but make you wonder if they can live up to them:

Kansas (8). Undoubtedly the best team in the nation to this point. But after watching Udoka Azubuike tweak his ankle Saturday and then see limited duty the rest of the way, it reinforced two things: the 7-footer’s fragility and how much better the Jayhawks are when he’s a force. Azubuike has been injured in two of his first three college seasons, and while this may be nothing major (“I’d imagine he’ll be fine,” Bill Self said), having him fully mobile and worry-free in the Big Dance will be vital.

Kansas has had a lot of No. 1 NCAA seeds under Self, but also a lot of heartburn endings. Eight times the Jayhawks have been a No. 1 seed in the Self Era, with one NCAA title and two Final Fours to show for them. They’ve lost to some eventual national champions along the way—Villanova 2016 and ’18—along the way, but also to VCU and Northern Iowa.

Duke (9). The Blue Devils on the road in February were a mess: losses to Virginia, Wake Forest and North Carolina State (by 22); a miracle overtime escape against the worst North Carolina team in years and a struggle at Boston College. The geography is kind the next several weeks—home against NC State and the Tar Heels this week, then the ACC tourney in Greensboro and a likely NCAA start in the same city—but this young team that is showing its weaknesses in the late going. Mike Krzyzewski is using several incomplete players in large roles, trying to find the right combination. We’ll see if it comes together in March.

Louisville (10). Malik Williams is no Udoka Azubuike, but the big man’s importance to the Cardinals is significant and his availability is unknown going forward after an ankle injury Feb. 24. He was in a boot and didn’t play Sunday as Louisville clinched at least a share of the ACC title. Without Williams, Chris Mack has the enigmatic Stephen Enoch and a bunch of nothing at center. Even with Williams, Louisville has shown some defensive weaknesses—most notably from its freshmen—but Mack has some time to work on it and rest his team. The Cards play just two games between Feb. 25 and March 11.

Maryland (11). There has been a lot to like about these Terrapins this season, as they marched to within reach of their first Big Ten title. But some of the old doubts about Mark Turgeon have surfaced in the last couple weeks, with the blowout loss to Michigan State and a road loss to Ohio State that was never in doubt in the second half. Between those two games, it took a furious rally by the Terps to beat Minnesota by a point. Turgeon has lost his last four Big Ten tournament games and never made it past the Sweet 16 in nine NCAA appearances.

LITTLE DANCE

Welcome to the most hopeful week of the year in college basketball. It’s the beginning of conference tournament season, and almost all dreams are alive (unless your team didn’t make the league tourney, in which case, sorry). From here, it’s a clean slate. Twenty-loss teams can try to make it right with a run that wins an automatic bid to the Big Dance. And once there, hey, why not try to win six more?

The Minutes breaks down the first 13 league tourneys, which get underway Tuesday:

Ohio Valley Conference (12). Dates: March 4-7. Location: Evansville, Ind. Pomeroy league ranking: 29th out of 32. Top seed: Belmont, which has authored a 10th straight 20-win season. Dark horse: Third seed Austin Peay, which won 20 games and split with both Belmont and Murray. But keep an eye on No. 6 Eastern Illinois as well, coming in on a four-game winning streak. Player to watch: Austin Peay’s Terry Taylor, an energetic double-double machine.

Minutes pick: Belmont (13). It’s a new era after Rick Byrd retired, but the same level of success under successor Casey Alexander. Give the streaking Bruins a slight edge over Murray State, which lost three times on the road in February. Belmont has one differentiating component: 6-foot-11 Nick Muszynski, who can score in the low post and defend the rim.

Big South Conference (14). Dates: March 3-8. Location: Campus sites. Pomeroy league ranking: 30th out of 32. Top seed: Radford, which has made the tourney final the past two years. Dark horse: Third seed Gardner-Webb, which won this tourney last year and comes in having won six of its last seven. Player to watch: Radford guard Carlik Jones, whose three-pointer as a freshman won this tournament in 2018.

Minutes pick: Gardner-Webb (15). The Runnin’ Bulldogs beat both of the top seeds, Redford and Winthrop, in February. They have a pair of deadly shooters in Nate Johnson and Jaheam Cornwall, and a hot-shooting team at tournament time is a dangerous team.

Atlantic Sun Conference (16). Dates: March 3-8. Location: Campus sites. Pomeroy league rating: 26th out of 32. Top seed: Liberty, which is the defending champion and won a game in the NCAA tourney last year. Dark horse: Third seed Lipscomb, which took some time to come together after a coaching change and now has won six of its last seven, including an upset of Liberty Saturday. Player to watch: Fifth-year senior forward Caleb Homesley of Liberty, who averaged 21.5 points in February.

Minutes pick: North Florida (17). The second-seeded Ospreys shoot the most threes in the nation, and they have a lot of guys who can make them. They split with Liberty in the regular season and have won eight of their last nine coming into the tourney.

Missouri Valley Conference (18). Dates: March 5-8. Location: St. Louis. Pomeroy league ranking: 11th out of 32. Top seed: Northern Iowa, which last won the league tourney in 2016. Dark horse: Third seed Indiana State, which is on a four-game winning streak that includes an upset of UNI. Player to watch: Loyola Chicago big man Cameron Krutwig, the last mainstay from the Ramblers’ 2018 Final Four team, is an old-school post man with crafty moves and deft passing ability.

Minutes pick: Northern Iowa (19). The Panthers have been the best team in the league all season, and after a five-day February wobble with losses to Loyola and Indiana State they righted the ship. Their last three wins were by an average of 19.7 points.

Southern Conference (20). Dates: March 6-9. Location: Asheville, N.C. Pomeroy league ranking: 15th out of 31. Top seed: East Tennessee State, which at 27-4 needs one win to break the school single-season victory record. Dark horse: Fourth seed Mercer, which won its last four, 11 of its last 14 and handed ETSU its last loss. Player to watch: Mason Faulkner, Western Carolina. Productive guard who has had a pair of triple doubles this season.

Minutes pick: ETSU (21). The Buccaneers should be in the tourney as an at-large team if they don’t win this thing, but it won’t come to that. Best team in the league comes in on a nine-game winning streak.

Colonial Athletic Association (22). Dates: March 7-10. Location: Washington, D.C. Pomeroy league ranking: 18th out of 32. Top seed: Hofstra, which is trying to make the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2001, when its coach was Jay Wright. Dark horse: Third seed Towson, which finished with road wins over Hofstra and Northeastern and has won seven of its last eight road games. Player to watch: Charleston senior guard Grant Riller, who could become a 2,500-point career scorer at this tournament.

Minutes pick: Hofstra (23). The Pride knocked on the NCAA door last season, winning 27 games before falling in the CAA final to Northeastern. With a senior core, they’ll finish the job this time around.

West Coast Conference (24). Dates: March 5-10. Location: Las Vegas. Pomeroy league ranking: Eighth out of 32. Top seed: Gonzaga, same as it ever was. Dark horse: Only in the WCC can the No. 2 seed be a dark horse, so that’s what BYU is. The Cougars are very good and extremely hot. Player to watch: Saint Mary’s guard Jordan Ford has been terrific, but BYU big man Yoeli Childs has become a monster late in the season. Last three games he’s averaging 29.3 points and 11.7 rebounds in just 29.7 minutes.

Minutes pick: Gonzaga (25). Strong temptation to pick the Cougars here, but the Zags are the more reliable team defensively and the deeper team offensively.

Summit League (26). Dates: March 7-10. Location: Sioux Falls, S.D. Pomeroy league ranking: 19th out of 32. Top seed: North Dakota State, which won this tournament last year. Dark horse: Third seed South Dakota might be able to shoot its way to an upset tourney title. Player to watch: Bison forward Tyson Ward, who can mix it up inside and shoot the three, comes in averaging 25.7 points in his last three games.

Minutes pick: North Dakota State (27). The Minutes was tempted to take South Dakota State, but the uncertain status of leading scorer and rebounder Douglas Wilson with a foot injury makes that a risky pick. It’s BZN SZN again in the Summit.

Horizon League (28). Dates: March 3-10. Location: Campus sites, then Indianapolis. Pomeroy league ranking: 24th out of 32. Top seed: Wright State, which won the league by two games over Northern Kentucky. Dark horse: Third seed Green Bay plays very fast and has beaten both Wright State and NKU thus far this season. Player to watch: Wright State’s Loudon Love is a low-post mauler who has transformed his physique while retaining his power. He’s a 260-pound handful.

Minutes pick: Wright State (29). Either the Raiders or NKU has won the last three Horizon titles, and this will make it four. Wright State swept the Norse this season and will make it a three-peat in the tourney final.

Northeast Conference (30). Dates: March 4-10. Location: Campus sites. Pomeroy league ranking: 27th out of 32. Top seed: Robert Morris, which benefits from regular-season champion Merrimack being ineligible for the tournament as a recent Division II upgrade program. Dark horse: Fairleigh Dickinson, which is 11-18 but 9-9 in the league and is the only NEC school to beat Robert Morris twice. Player to watch: E.J. Anosike, an undersized post player from Sacred Heart who has racked up 17 double doubles this season.

Minutes pick: St. Francis (Pa.) (31). It’s time for the second-seeded Red Flash to make their first Big Dance appearance since 1991, and second ever. See you in Dayton for the First Four.

Patriot League (32). Dates: March 3-11. Location: Campus sites. Pomeroy league ranking: 23rd out of 32. Top seed: Colgate, looking to make its second straight Big Dance appearance. Dark horse: Third seed Boston University, which at No. 162 in the Pomeroy Ratings is the only other Patriot League team besides Colgate (No. 122) not in the 200s. Player to watch: Boston U. Center Max Mahoney is the top rebounder and most efficient offensive player in the league.

Minutes pick: Colgate (33). The Raiders are 17-4 since Dec. 8, with the four losses coming by a total of 11 points. This is mostly the same group that stormed through the Patriot tournament with relative ease last season.

America East Conference (34). Dates: March 7-14. Location: Campus sites. Pomeroy league ranking: 25th out of 32. Top seed: Vermont, which won its fourth straight regular-season title. Dark horse: UMBC. You may be familiar with the Retrievers’ March body of work. They’re only 14-16 and staggering in off consecutive losses, but they did stun the Catamounts on the road Feb. 22. Player to watch: Anthony Lamb is completing a stellar career at Vermont and is one of the best players in conference history.

Minutes pick: Vermont (35). The Catamounts have occasionally failed to finish the job at single-elimination time, only winning two of the past seven tourneys. But they were a dominant force in last year’s AE tournament and appear to be similarly superior to the competition this time around.

Mountain West Conference (36). Dates: March 4-7. Location: Las Vegas. Pomeroy league ranking: 10th out of 32. Top seed: San Diego State, which blew through the league (and the entire season) with one loss. Dark horse: Fourth seed UNLV is lurking, having won five straight and upsetting the Aztecs and playing this tourney on its home court.

Minutes pick: UNLV (37). The Runnin’ Rebels need to get past Boise State in their first game, but then present a difficult matchup for San Diego State. They have talent and size and appear to have gotten on the same page with first-year coach T.J. Otzelberger.

Shaka Smart Texas Longhorns

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Shaka Smart (38), Texas. He looked like a dead man coaching in mid-February, flailing along at 14-11 overall and 4-8 in the Big 12, coming off a 29-point loss at Iowa State and down two starters due to injuries. Plenty of people (including The Minutes) were speculating about John Beilein as the next coach of the Longhorns. Now Texas is on a four-game winning streak (see above), all by double figures. It’s a grand and glorious thing when the ball goes in the basket, especially from long range. During its four-game winning streak, Texas has made 36 out of 78 three-pointers, far above its season average.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

Sean Miller (39), Arizona. His team has lost three straight and he lost his mind in the latest defeat, at UCLA. Miller was spit-flying furious in the first half, earning one technical foul, then was ejected in the second half. He needs to get himself—and his team—together to prevent Arizona’s NCAA seeding from sliding further.

BUZZER BEATER

When hungry and thirsty in the Seattle area, The Minutes strongly recommends a visit to Salty’s (40) in Redondo Beach. It’s picturesquely situation right on the water, and the seafood is appropriately on point. Try the seafood chowder and pair it with a locally produced Bodhizafa IPA and call The Minutes later.