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Sunday, March 14, 2010
The bracket is a work of art

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

Welcome to the Big Dance Edition of Forde Minutes, where we fast-break through 65 names, games, teams and minutiae making news in the NCAA tournament (new, never-been-worn dancing shoes sold separately at Wofford (1) and Arkansas-Pine Bluff (2)):

Suitable for framing

We start on this high holy day in the sporting calendar with a bit of art appreciation. (As opposed to Art appreciation, since Radford and star center Art Parakhouski were eliminated in the Big South semifinals. Such a shame.) Pause for a moment to celebrate the long-forgotten genius who, somewhere in our ancestral past, devised the bracket as a means of organizing a tournament.

Artsiom Parakhouski
Sadly, Radford's Art Parakhouski will not be joining us in the field.

Where would college basketball be without the organizational masterpiece that is the bracket? What sort of hollow and hugely unstructured existence would we have without that beautiful geometric construction to arrange March Madness for us, and to guide us through our office-pool picks?

We salute you, anonymous Bracket Boy, for transforming the tournament layout into art. And this time around, we have Murray State guard Picasso Simmons (3) along to verify the bracket's artistic merit.

Within the bracket resides this tournament's Michelangelo. Like the man who painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and sculpted David, Evan Turner (4) is multifaceted. The Ohio State superstar leads his team in points, rebounds, assists and steals.

There is a Van Gogh in the field as well, in Kentucky's DeMarcus Cousins (5) -- a brilliant talent, but also volatile enough to take someone's ear off (though probably not his own).

Look through the bracket, and you will see Sunflowers. As in, the Sunflower State (6). Kansas and Kansas State are both in, and both in position to make big runs.

If you watch West Virginia play, you will undoubtedly witness The Scream. It's what Bob Huggins (7) does at the officials for 40 minutes every game.

And we will undoubtedly feel tugged by The Persistence of Memory. With Kansas' Bill Self (8) and Kentucky's John Calipari (9) aligned opposite each other in the bracket with the two top teams, we won't be able to shake flashbacks to the epic 2008 title game won by Self's Jayhawks in overtime against Calipari's Memphis Tigers.

For basketball fans, the 65-team grid is our Mona Lisa. (Unless, of course, you want to put Ashley Judd (10) in that role.)

And the greedy heretics who wish to make it a 96-team grid might as well be painting a mustache on Lisa. But that's a different column for a different day.

Today, it's time to appreciate the museum quality of Madness, as we prepare to watch it come to life in bracket-shaped brushstrokes on the canvas before us. And given the way this dizzying regular season and tumultuous conference tournament week has gone, prepare for surrealism to be en vogue over the next three weeks.

Louvre quality

The five teams -- and five teams only -- that can win the national championship:

Sherron Collins
Sherron Collins leads the most complete team in the field.

Kansas (11). The most complete team in the field, and the deserving favorite. The Jayhawks have every ingredient needed to win a title: next-level talent, experience, size, athleticism, depth and a coach who has been there before. This is the team to beat; anyone up to it?

Kentucky (12). Nobody has more talent than the Wildcats, and no other team can put together more devastating runs fueled by defense and fast breaks. The question is whether a schedule rated just the 64th toughest in the country by Jeff Sagarin has prepared Kentucky for the challenges to come.

Syracuse (13). The Orange were playing better than anyone until they lost their last two games and watched massive center Arinze Onuaku go down with a strained quadriceps. But he's expected to be OK to play in the big tournament, and Cuse's zone defense will be problematic for every opponent. If forward Wesley Johnson can return to top form, Syracuse will be difficult to beat.

West Virginia (14). Far from a complete team, given the issues at point guard and the tendency to let opponents back into games. But the deep, rugged and athletic Mountaineers can assault the offensive glass like few other teams in the country -- and in a tournament that could feature a lot of missed shots, those who can collect the misses for easy baskets could have a major advantage.

Duke (15). The Minutes really isn't convinced that the Blue Devils can win six games, especially given their recent underachieving past. But who else are you going to put on this rapidly dwindling list of championship-caliber teams? Duke does have a core group of three excellent players in Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith and its best collection of big men in several years. Is that enough? We'll see.

Breakout exhibits

Five underappreciated teams primed for their most successful tournament in years -- if not ever:

LaceDarius Dunn
Baylor's LaceDarius Dunn shoots it at a 43 percent clip from 3-point range.

Baylor (16). The Minutes loves the Bears in this tourney. Loves the shooting stroke of guard LaceDarius Dunn. Loves the leadership qualities of point guard Tweety Carter. Loves the shot-blocking ability of center Ekpe Udoh. It's been 60 years since Baylor won an NCAA tournament game, but it won't be much longer now.

Butler (17). The Bulldogs have had a couple of runs to the Sweet 16 the past decade, but those teams had to rely on wits and hot shooting. This team has some of those same attributes -- plus better talent. Sophomore Gordon Hayward is the most versatile player in the tournament not named Evan Turner, and guard Shelvin Mack and center Matt Howard could play for any other tournament team. You don't win 20 straight games without being good, and Butler is good -- maybe good enough to win four straight and make its first Final Four, in its hometown.

Kansas State (18). The Wildcats aren't exactly under the radar after spending a good part of the season ranked in the top 10 -- but they still haven't been fully appreciated by large segments of the hoops world. The dynamic backcourt of Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente is complemented by a group of athletic and disruptive frontcourt players, and K-State will guard you from the time you get off the bus. The Wildcats haven't made any kind of run since going to the 1988 Elite Eight, where they lost to eventual national champion Kansas.

Northern Iowa (19). If you saw the defensive sleeper holds the Panthers put on teams in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, you know they're going to be difficult to beat. UNI held Drake 21 minutes without a field goal in the quarterfinals, then held Bradley seven minutes without a field goal in the semis, then held Wichita State 10 minutes without a field goal in the final. The school has one NCAA tournament victory ever; that total could double or triple this week.

Richmond (20). You must be able to perform under pressure in the NCAA tournament, and the Spiders are accomplished in the clutch. They're 14-4 in games decided by seven points or fewer, many of those against teams in this field of 65. Richmond won some games in the Dance in the 1980s and '90s, but it's been more than a decade since the last one.

Dogs Playing Poker

Five name teams from name conferences that are junk art at heart and will be bounced early:

Dino Gaudio
Is Dino Gaudio's Wake Forest squad long for the tourney?

Wake Forest (21). The Demon Deacons have ended the season disastrously, losing five of their last six and bottoming out with a 21-point loss in the ACC tourney to last-place Miami. Coach Dino Gaudio is 0-4 in postseason games as Wake head coach. In each of those four games, Gaudio's team had the higher seed -- and in each of those four games, it lost by double digits.

Purdue (22). Eleven first-half points against Minnesota in the Big Ten semifinals. Repeat: 11 points. We finally saw how bad it can be without Robbie Hummel.

Texas (23). Was this team really ranked No. 1? This year? Since then, the Longhorns have been parked in Dysfunction Junction, losing nine of their last 16 games. Last time Texas won three in a row was Jan. 9-16.

Missouri (24). The Tigers lost starting forward Justin Safford to a knee injury, and all their momentum left with him. They enter the tourney having lost three of their last four games, with the only win in overtime against weak Iowa State. Mizzou has just one win over an NCAA tournament team in its last 11 games -- and that was against Texas, which almost doesn't count.

Tennessee (25). Any Top 25 team that gets pasted by 29 points in a conference tournament -- even if the opponent is Kentucky -- has issues. Combine that with Bruce Pearl's unspectacular NCAA tournament record at Tennessee (he's 5-4 despite twice being seeded as high as No. 2), and there is reason to suspect that the Volunteers are in trouble.

Not every work can be a masterpiece

Don't dismiss these teams just because they were upset in their conference tournaments:

Gary Williams
Gary Williams hasn't lost in the NCAA first round since 1997.

Maryland (26). The Terrapins haven't lost consecutive games since November in Maui and have the experience to bounce back after being bounced by Georgia Tech in the ACC quarterfinals. And it's been a while since Gary Williams was sent home after the first round; the last nine times he's had the Terps in the field, they've won at least one game.

Michigan State (27). The Spartans haven't done anything impressive in weeks, struggling at 5-5 over their last 10 games. But only a fool would bet against Tom Izzo's having his team playing its best ball in this tournament.

Brigham Young (28). All five of the Cougars' losses are to teams in this tournament, and they just seem to have too much firepower to get bounced in the first round. Then again, they've lost three straight first-round games under Dave Rose and haven't won an NCAA tournament game since 1993.

New Mexico (29). The Lobos lost in the Mountain West semifinals to San Diego State and will undoubtedly have some first-time NCAA tournament jitters to work through -- the program hasn't been here in five years. But don't overlook the fact that this team won 15 straight games late in the season.

Villanova (30). Not many teams have finished as poorly as the Wildcats, losers in five of their last seven games. But this talented and experienced team should regain its footing now that it's outside the Big East meat grinder. With an 11-5 NCAA tournament record at Nova, Jay Wright knows what he's doing at this time of year.

Mastering your medium

The Minutes looked at every coach in this field of 65 -- and at every previous tourney they'd been in.

The goal: to find out which coaches with a minimum of five games' NCAA tournament experience were the best at outperforming their seeding -- and which are the worst.

The formula: Take the number of games played beyond what each team's seeding projected, and divide it by the total number of NCAA tournament games coached.

Example: Stew Morrill is 1-7 as a coach in the tournament at Montana and Utah State, but by seed should have been 0-7. Thus Morrill has overachieved at a rate of 12.5 percent.

Thus, the five coaches in this year's field who have the highest overachiever rate:

Mark Turgeon
Mark Turgeon won 26 games and went to the Sweet 16 with Wichita State in 2006.

Mark Turgeon (31), Texas A&M. NCAA record: 4-3. Overachiever rate: 42.9 percent. He took seventh-seeded Wichita State to the Sweet 16 in 2006 and has won a couple of games as a No. 9 seed.

Tom Penders (32), Houston. NCAA record: 12-10. Overachiever rate: 40.9 percent. He's won an amazing 10 games as a double-digit seed -- and now he'll have a chance to win some more from that range in this tourney.

Mike Anderson (33), Missouri. NCAA record: 6-4. Overachiever rate: 40 percent. Took down No. 1-seeded Kentucky in the second round in 2004 while at UAB, and last year advanced a No. 3 seed to the Elite Eight.

Fran McCaffery (34), Siena. NCAA record: 2-4. Overachiever rate: 33 percent. Best run: The Saints have won tournament games each of the past two years despite being seeded 13th and ninth.

Matt Painter (35), Purdue. NCAA record: 4-4. Overachiever rate: 25 percent. He hasn't pulled any huge upsets -- but he has never had a team bow out before it was expected to. (That may change this year without Hummel.)

And the five coaches in this year's field with the worst track record of playing below their seeding:

Oliver Purnell (36), Clemson. NCAA record: 0-5. Underachiever rate: 80 percent. He's spit the bit in the first round with teams seeded fourth, fifth and seventh.

Leonard Hamilton (37), Florida State. NCAA record: 3-4. Underachiever rate: 14.3 percent. Lost in 1999 (when he coached Miami) in the second round as a 2 seed and in 2009 in the first round as a 5 seed.

Mike Montgomery (38), California. NCAA record: 16-13. Underachiever rate: 27.6 percent. Had some memorable second-round losses with No. 1-seeded Stanford in 2000 and '04.

Bob Huggins, West Virginia. NCAA record: 22-18. Underachiever rate: 20 percent. For a while (like, five times between 1997 and 2002), he was the king of the second-round upset loss. Often with very highly seeded teams.

Lorenzo Romar (39), Washington. NCAA record: 5-5. Underachiever rate: 20 percent. Got whacked in the 2005 Sweet 16 with a No. 1 seed -- then again, that team should not have been a No. 1 seed.

Where some of the biggest names rate on the achievement scale:

Rick Barnes (40), Texas. NCAA record: 18-16. Underachiever rate: 14.7 percent. This will be his 15th consecutive tournament, but only one Final Four to show for it -- despite a wealth of talent.

Jim Boeheim
Jim Boeheim's teams have been a mixed bag in relation to their seed.

Jim Boeheim (41), Syracuse. NCAA record: 42-26. Underachiever rate: 4.4 percent. He's had some major early flameouts. None of Boeheim's three Final Four teams was a No. 1 seed.

John Calipari, Kentucky. NCAA record: 25-11. Underachiever rate: 16.7 percent. Has had a number of teams knocked off one round earlier than expected, including last year at Memphis.

Tom Izzo (42), Michigan State. NCAA record: 31-11. Overachiever rate: 18.8 percent. That's an impressive stat for a guy who has coached that many games and had that many high seeds over the years.

Mike Krzyzewski (43), Duke. NCAA record: 71-22. Underachiever rate: 8.6 percent. Teams consistently overachieved or met expectations from 1984 to '94. After that, there have been many more disappointments.

Rick Pitino (44), Louisville. NCAA record: 38-13. Overachiever rate: 3.9 percent. Took teams seeded sixth (Providence 1987) and fourth (Louisville '05) to the Final Four. Also has had some tough losses in the second and fourth rounds with highly seeded teams.

Bill Self, Kansas. NCAA record: 24-10. Overachiever rate: 5.9 percent. A couple of bad early-round losses at Kansas were counterbalanced by some upset wins at Tulsa.

Tubby Smith (45), Minnesota. NCAA record: 29-14. Overachiever rate: 2.3 percent. Had some great underdog runs at Tulsa and Georgia, then won it all as a No. 2 seed at Kentucky in 1998. Since then, not much to brag about.

And an underrated overachiever: Lon Kruger (46), UNLV. NCAA record: 14-11. He's had several surprise runs in several locales. Took fourth-seeded Kansas State to the 1988 regional final, third-seeded Florida to the '94 Final Four and seventh-seeded UNLV to the 2007 Sweet 16.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

The five freshmen to watch in this tournament, many of them on their one-and-done way to the NBA:

John Wall
Get a good look at John Wall. It's the last time we'll see him in a college uniform.

John Wall (47), Kentucky. This transcendent talent will dazzle fans nationwide with his open-court speed and passing savvy. The only question is whether his shooting stroke will return. (He's hit just five of his last 27 from 3-point range.)

DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky. An unstoppable force around the basket, he seems able to get his hands on every single ball that's up for grabs -- most memorably the errant Wall shot that Cousins put back in at the buzzer to force overtime in the SEC tournament final Sunday.

Xavier Henry (48), Kansas. The fluid, athletic, left-handed wing player has become the Jayhawks' No. 2 scorer and appears to have broken through after hitting the freshman wall in late January and early February. Watch him flourish in the early rounds as KU gets games into the open court.

Derrick Favors (49), Georgia Tech. He was an absolute stud in the ACC tournament, averaging 17 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3 blocks in leading the Yellow Jackets to the final game. If Tech's guards get him the ball often enough, he'll be a force in this tournament, too.

Mason Plumlee (50), Duke. A bit of a sleeper pick here. Plumlee doesn't have big numbers and doesn't play big minutes, but he's the most athletic of the Blue Devils' big men and is playing progressively better as the season goes on. He has the makings of a future star, and this tourney could be his coming-out party.

Back after sabbatical

Sometimes artists need to get away to find their muse, right? Here are five guys we haven't seen for a while, now doing good work in different places than the last time they visited the Big Dance:

Tom Penders. Last seen: coaching George Washington in the 1999 NCAA tournament. Now: coaching Cinderella team Houston, which has the most losses of any team in the field, to its first bid in 18 years.

Steve Alford (51). Last seen: coaching Iowa in the 2006 tournament. Now: The former Final Four hero as a player 23 years ago is coaching New Mexico to its first bid since 2005.

Armon Bassett (52). Last seen: playing for Indiana in the 2008 NCAA tournament. Now: led Ohio to a stunning Mid-American Conference tournament title after the Bobcats entered it as the No. 9 seed. Bassett was unstoppable in the tourney, averaging 41.3 minutes, 29 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.3 steals in four games.

Derrick Caracter (53). Last seen: playing for Louisville in the 2008 NCAA tournament. Now: second on the team in scoring (13.8 points) and first in rebounds (8.0) for Conference USA regular-season champion UTEP.

Ben Allen (54). Last seen: playing (sparingly) for Kelvin Sampson and Indiana in the 2007 NCAA tournament. Now: averaging nearly 11 points and 8 rebounds for West Coast Conference tourney champion Saint Mary's.

Temperamental artistes

Five players who will need to control their emotions and level out their play for their teams to achieve optimum success in this tournament:

DeMarcus Cousins. Occasional blowups have not hindered his production -- but as the pressure rises, so will opponents' attempts to get inside his head.

Edgar Sosa
Which version of Edgar Sosa will show for the Cardinals?

Edgar Sosa (55). Louisville's mercurial point guard can be great or terrible, sometimes both in the same possession. If he gets the ball inside to Samardo Samuels and refrains from forcing bad shots, he could be one of the success stories of March. If not, the Cardinals will go home early.

Greivis Vasquez (56). He's the heart and soul of Maryland's fast-paced attack, but he's an emotional player who can try too hard and wind up volume-shooting his way into some ugly performances -- such as the 6-for-21 brickfest against Georgia Tech in the ACC tourney.

Jonathan Tavernari (57). After engaging in a trash-talk confrontation with Steve Alford after the BYU-New Mexico game in Provo on Feb. 27, Tavernari has had one great game (23 points at TCU) and three terrible ones (a total of 13 points on 4-for-16 shooting against Utah, TCU in the league tournament, and UNLV). BYU needs some consistency from its high-energy forward.

Melvin Goins (58). Got tossed from Tennessee's SEC semifinal beatdown against Kentucky for elbowing Cousins in the groin. Not good. Neither is the fact that he hasn't made a shot in the past two games.

The human canvas

Forget tattoos -- those are everywhere. Here is what other style-conscious players are in love with this tournament:

Beats By Dre headphones (59). The Minutes has seen them around the necks of players nationwide this season. Some models retail for $350. Anyone curious where that cash comes from?

The Abe Lincoln beard (60). Jacob Pullen of Kansas State has one. So does Damion James of Texas. And Jason Love of Xavier. And Arinze Onuaku of Syracuse. The chicks must dig them, though The Minutes has no idea why.

Compression sleeve (61). There must be an epidemic of elbow injuries, since players are supposed to wear them only for medical purposes. But John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and many others seem to have two perfectly working arms.

Hair gel (62). Maryland's Greivis Vasquez and Syracuse's Andy Rautins might be using the most mousse in this tourney. (As an occasional user of product, The Minutes is not criticizing.)

The Art of Persuasion

Five coaches who work the officials hardest (this category clearly misses Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, who won't be riding the zebras in this tournament this year):

Bob Huggins. As The Minutes mentioned above, Huggins could have been the subject for Edvard Munch's "The Scream," although his face is much redder.

Gary Williams (63). The Maryland coach wears out everyone in his vicinity during games -- players, assistants, and absolutely the guys wearing the stripes.

Mike Krzyzewski. Always gets his points across. One ref got tired enough of hearing it in the ACC semis and T'd up Coach K. Judging by the reaction of the Duke fans, you would have thought someone had just burned the flag.

Jamie Dixon (64). Pittsburgh's boss always looks as though he's one bad call away from ripping his hair out.

John Calipari. Constantly angling for calls -- except for when he's yelling at his own team.

The Last Supper

When hungry and thirsty in Indianapolis, the final stop of the season, The Minutes recommends a visit to The Claddagh (65). The Irish pub is conveniently located downtown and has a solid menu and excellent beer list. There is a better-than-decent chance of seeing a few famous college coaches or not-famous media members in there during the Final Four.

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