by David Fox (@DavidFox615 on twitter)
An unfortunate fact for college basketball is that many fans are just getting acquainted with the sport around tournament time.
Athlon Sports won’t judge.
For those about to get a heavy dose of college hoops over the next three weeks, we’ll help you get caught up. We broke down the NCAA Tournament field A to Z, highlighting some key teams, coaches, players, statistics and trends to watch.
It’s an exhaustive list, so some hardcore college basketball aficionados may learn a thing or two as well.
Alaska. With South Dakota State making the field by way of the Summit League’s automatic bid, Alaska and Maine are the only states never to have a team in the NCAA Tournament. The Dakotas were two of the last three states in the Lower 48 to join the field with North Dakota State earning a bid in 2009. The wait for Alaska to join March Madness may be a while, though. Alaska does not have any Division I basketball teams.
Burgess, Bradford. A year after advancing from the First Four to the Final Four, VCU won’t catch anyone off guard. Neither will its prolific wing Burgess. A year ago, Burgess averaged 15.7 points and 7 rebounds during the Final Four run. Like the rest of the Rams, Burgess got hot from 3 on the way to the national semifinal, hitting 17 from beyond the arc in six games. He’s one of two starters back to defend the Final Four along with center D.J. Haley.
Charity stripe. Any Memphis fan can stress the importance of free throw shooting in the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers that year were one of the worst teams from the line in the country in 2008, a deficiency that bit Memphis in the finals seconds against eventual national champion Kansas. Be nervous watching these teams from the free-throw line: Cincinnati (64.1), Kansas State (66.6), Connecticut (66.1). On the other hand, teams to like at the free-throw line: Missouri (76.5 percent), Indiana (76.2), Wichita State (75.1), Baylor (75.1) and Harvard (74.6). As for John Calipari’s current team, Kentucky led the SEC by shooting 72 percent from the line.
Defense. Be cautious of teams vulnerable on defense in the NCAA Tournament. Some teams that worry us include: Creighton (101.8 points allowed per 100 possessions according to kenpom.com, 183rd nationally), Davidson (98.7 points), Florida (98.3 points) and Saint Mary’s (97.4 points).
Eustachy, Larry. The return of Larry Eustachy to the NCAA Tournament is one of the major redemption stories for the coach and his program. He left Iowa State in disgrace in 2001 after he was photographed with beer in his hand among students at a campus party in Columbia, Mo. The AP National Coach of the Year admitted he had problem with alcohol and set out to solve it. He landed at Southern Miss in 2004 and rebuilt the program for its first Tournament appearance since 1991.
Fathers. Where would Creighton and Detroit be without good genes? Both teams’ star players – Doug McDermott at Creighton and Ray McCallum at Detroit – happen to be the sons of their head coaches. Both took different routes to play with their fathers. Greg McDermott, then the struggling head coach at Iowa State, didn’t think Doug had the size to flourish in the Big 12. The McDermotts reunited in the Missouri Valley where Doug became the league player of the year. Elsewhere, Ray McCallum Jr. could have played just about anywhere but he ended up in the Horizon League. The son spurned Arizona, Florida and UCLA to play for his father Ray McCallum Sr. at Detroit.
Green, Draymond. Few players in the country are as NCAA Tournament-tested as Michigan State forward Draymond Green. He came off the bench for the Spartans’ Final Four runs in 2009 and 2010 and had his best career tournament game in his only start last season with 23 points and 11 rebounds in a round of 64 loss to UCLA. In 12 NCAA Tournament games, Green has averaged 9.8 points and 6.3 rebounds. Look for him to exceed those averages as the centerpiece for the Spartans this season.
Harvard. Between Jeremy Lin and Ryan Fitzpatrick, Harvard has had a couple of opportunities to brag about its alums in the sports world. Finally, the Crimson can brag about current players in the NCAA Tournament. After falling short in a one-game playoff with Princeton for the Ivy League title last season, Harvard avoided such drama this season by winning the Ivy and earning its first NCAA Tournament since 1946.
Injuries. A handful of injuries could dampen teams’ hopes in the Tournament. Start with a torn ACL for Indiana point guard Verdell Jones. North Carolina also will be concerned with a wrist injury for ACC defensive player of the year John Henson. Injuries to Michigan State’s Branden Dawson, Duke’s Ryan Kelly and Florida’s Will Yeguete will put pressure on role players for each team.
Jayhawks. Kansas continued the longest active streak for NCAA Tournament appearances at 23 straight years in the field. Since losing to Bucknell and Bradley in the first round in back-to-back years, Kansas has won at least one game in the last five Tournaments, including the 2008 national championship. Mid-majors, though, still seem to have a hex on Kansas as the Jayhawks lost to VCU in the Elite Eight last season and Northern Iowa in the second round in 2010.
Kentucky. The Wildcats enter the tournament as the prohibitive favorite after losing only a buzzer-beater to Indiana on Dec. 10 and Vanderbilt this past weekend. Kentucky reached the Elite Eight in the first season under Calipari and the Final Four in the second season. Big Blue Nation is expecting the next step with good reason: Kentucky is stocked with future NBA talent, and it might have the best player in the country in Anthony Davis. Still, youth is a concern with freshmen and sophomores making up six of its top seven players. Kentucky won’t out-shoot many teams from 3-point range, either.
Lopsided losses. North Carolina is on the short list of teams capable of winning the national title, but the Tar Heels still have the 33-point loss to Florida State from Jan. 14 on their resume. Here are the worst losses for other top title contenders: Kentucky (by 7 points to Vanderbilt), Syracuse (9 points at Notre Dame), Kansas (10 points to Kentucky in Maui), Michigan State (15 points at Indiana), Ohio State (11 points to Kansas), Duke (22 points at Ohio State), Missouri (16 points at Kansas State).
Majerus, Rick. This season will mark the return of Saint Louis to the NCAA Tournament. The Billikens have been absent since 2000 under now-Washington coach Lorenzo Romar. This is also a return to the Tournament for Rick Majerus, who last coached in the Big Dance with Utah in 2003. The coach who led the Utes to the national championship game in 1998 left Utah citing health reasons partway through the 2003-04 season. After working with ESPN, he took the USC job for four days before leaving the Trojans due to health concerns.
New Orleans. The Final Four returns to New Orleans for the fifth time in the last 30 years, a fact a handful of top teams hope brings good mojo. North Carolina won the title twice here in 1982 and 1993. Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to a championship in the Superdome in 2003. The Orange also played for a title in New Orleans in 1987 when they lost to Indiana. Kansas has reached the Final Four twice in New Orleans (2003, 1993). Kentucky has done it once (1993).
Orange. Syracuse first fought through the Bernie Fine scandal to start the season. Then came the Yahoo! Sports story that indicated Syracuse since 2001 played at least 10 players who failed tests for banned substances. Distractions don’t seem to be a problem for this group, though. If there’s another potential distraction to add: Since the 2003 championship, Syracuse has been eliminated by lower seeds in four of its last six appearances, including to sixth-seeded Marquette in the round of 32 last year.
Patsos, Jimmy. The NCAA Tournament is a great vehicle for drama and nail-biting, but it’s also a great vehicle to introduce basketball’s most interesting personalities to the mainstream. Loyola (Md.) coach Jimmy Patsos will be one of those this season. He picked up part-time work as a bartender while coaching under Gary Williams at Maryland, he loves the Grateful Dead, and he’ll talk and talk and talk. He can coach a bit, too. Loyola went 29-140 from 1999-2000 through 2004-05, his first season. This year, Loyola won 24 games and won the MAAC tournament for the Greyhounds’ first NCAA bid since 1994.
Quincys. Pierre Jackson is Baylor’s leading scorer, and Perry Jones is Baylor’s biggest star. That said, Baylor wouldn’t be the contender it is without its Quincys, particularly Quincy Acy. The forward is Baylor’s heart and motivator on the floor. The freshman Quincy Miller is far from a finished product, but he’s valuable contributor.
Rants. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin and Lamar coach Pat Knight weren’t shy in delivering blunt assessments of their teams in front of the cameras. They must have been just as effective in the locker room. Cincinnati’s brawl with rival Xavier was one of the low points of the season, but the Bearcats turned around their season after Cronin clearly expressed his embarrassment after the incident. The Bearcats lost that day, in addition to losing to Presbyterian and Marshall weeks earlier. Cincinnati went 19-7 and reached the Big East tournament final after the brawl. After a Feb. 22 loss to Stephen F. Austin, Knight evicerated his seniors. Lamar went 6-0 since, winning the Southland tournament for the school’s first Tournament bid since 2000.
St. Bonaventure. The NCAA slapped the Bonnies with the “lack of institutional control” in 2004, setting up a major reclamation project for coach Mark Schmidt. By defeating Xavier for the Atlantic 10 tournament final, St. Bonaventure earned its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2000 and knocked a bubble team out of the field. The country now will get to know senior Andrew Nicholson, one of the nation’s best-kept secrets. Against Xavier, Nicholson had one of the best games of his career with 26 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocks.
Tigers. Missouri hasn’t made the most NCAA Tournament appearances without a trip to the Final Four. That distinction belongs to BYU with 27 Tournaments without a Final Four. Missouri is right behind with 25 appearances without reaching the national semifinals. Led by Jimmer Fredette, BYU had one of its best shots last season before falling in the Sweet 16 to Florida. Missouri is in perhaps its best position to end that drought this year with its best seeding since being a No. 1 seed in 1994 (the Tigers lost to Arizona 92-72 in the Elite Eight that season).
USF. The Bulls may be a shining beacon to the likes of UCF, SMU and others, moribund basketball powers who will soon join a basketball-centric conference. The Bulls went 1-15 in their first season in the Big East before navigating a weaker Big East schedule this year to reach its first NCAA Tournament since 1992.
Valleys. As in the Missouri Valley and Ohio Valley conferences. Since 2008, the MVC’s only tournament wins were Northern Iowa’s run to the Sweet 16 in 2010. Could the Valley make another major statement in this tournament? History says it could be. When the Missouri Valley is a multi-bid league, as it is this season with Wichita State and Creighton in the field, it tends to succeed. In 2007, Southern Illinois reached the Sweet 16 when the MVC was a two-bid league. In 2006, the MVC had four bids with Bradley and Wichita State advancing to the Sweet 16. Meanwhile, the Ohio Valley, a traditional one-bid league, has scored upsets in the last two tournaments with Morehead State upsetting fourth-seeded Louisville in 2011 and Murray State upsetting fourth-seeded Vanderbilt in 2010. This year, the OVC will be favored in its first tournament game with 30-1 Murray State in the field.
Western Kentucky. Western Kentucky was one of the most unlikely teams to clinch a spot in the field when the Hilltoppers won the Sun Belt tournament. Western Kentucky was 5-11 when it fired head coach Ken McDonald on Jan. 6. Then-interim coach Ray Harper went 4-7 before the Hilltoppers elevated him to permanent head coach on Jan. 19 after a loss to South Alabama. That loss was the last under Harper. Western Kentucky won its final six games, including the regular-season finale against Sun Belt champ Middle Tennessee and the conference tournament. At 15-18, Western Kentucky is the only team in the field with a losing record.
Xavier Thames. San Diego State’s third leading scorer, Thames started his career at Washington State. He’s one of a handful of transfers who could make an impact on this year’s field: Mike Moser (UCLA to UNLV), Drew Gordon (UCLA to New Mexico), Matt Carlino (UCLA to BYU), Rob Jones (San Diego to Saint Mary’s), Brandon Wood (Valparaiso to Michigan State), Chris Allen (Michigan State to Iowa State).
Yarou, Mouphtaou. We’ll use this spot – and the name of the Villanova forward – to note two major absences from the NCAA Tournament. The state of Pennsylvania has two teams in the field (Lehigh and Temple), but not Pittsburgh and Villanova. Pitt had made 10 consecutive tournaments, and Villanova made seven. Both were the longest active Tournament streaks in the Big East. That honor now falls to Marquette with seven consecutive trips to the Tournament.
Zellers. Expect a handful of sick days back in Washington, Ind., with hometown favorites Tyler and Cody Zeller playing a major role in the Tournament. Tyler anchors the frontcourt of a team with title hopes in North Carolina. If that could be upstaged, at least in Indiana, Cody helped pull the Hoosiers out of the cellar with their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2008.
—by David Fox (@DavidFox615 on twitter)
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