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Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Four weeks until March Madness begins

By Jason King
ESPN.com

Don't make any plans a month from now. If a friend asks to meet for dinner or a boss schedules an evening conference, tell them you can't make it.

You're already booked.

On March 13, you'll be sitting on the edge of your sofa watching a college basketball game between unranked schools such as Seton Hall and NC State in the NCAA tournament's first round. Odds are you won't know the name of a single player on either team. Still, you'll be clutching your bracket in one hand and a cold one in the other, and you'll be excited.

Excited for the start of March Madness.

Just four weeks remain until the first game tips off in Dayton, Ohio. In some ways, it feels as if hardly any time has passed since North Carolina and Michigan State opened the season in front of U.S. troops and President Obama on an aircraft carrier.

Three months of action -- from Christian Watford's buzzer-beating 3-pointer in Indiana's win over Kentucky, Syracuse's resiliency amid a sea of turmoil, Missouri's rise and Xavier's fall -- will give way to three weeks of pure, unadulterated madness.

And while the NCAA tournament is still far enough away for teams to work their way into or out of the mix, it's also close enough to give us an idea of what to expect once the 68-team bracket is revealed on Selection Sunday.

In that spirit, here are 68 responses to a variety of questions that will continue to loom large as the tournament approaches. The real answers, however, will come soon enough.

One month from now, to be exact.

Get ready.

Four teams no one wants to see in their draw

1. Long Beach State: Dan Monson was one of the original giant-slayers when he was head coach of Gonzaga in the late '90s and has Long Beach State poised to play the role of David once again. The 49ers have already practiced slinging stones at Goliath, with close losses to Kansas and North Carolina. They may enter the tourney as one the more talented and battle-tested high-digit seeds.

Missouri Guards
Strong and capable guard play is important in March. Missouri has it in spades.

2. Missouri: This list isn't reserved to David. Don't let its diminutive lineup fool you: Missouri will enter the tournament as a giant. Along with being extremely poised and talented, the Tigers -- a potential No. 1 seed -- use a four-guard lineup that's tough to prepare for on short notice. Missouri shoots 50 percent from the field and averages 80.2 points.

3. UNLV: The Runnin' Rebels have advanced to the Sweet 16 just once since 1991, but this season has felt special ever since UNLV beat North Carolina back in November. Dave Rice's team has it all and isn't afraid of anybody. Speed, size, strength and, most of all, swagger. It might not be the stuff of Jerry Tarkanian's teams of old, but it's made the Runnin' Rebels a dangerous out come March.

4. Memphis: The Tigers disappeared from the spotlight after a handful of early-season losses caused them to fall out of the rankings. So you may not have noticed that Memphis has won 12 of its past 14 games, with the two losses coming by a combined four points. The Tigers are equal parts talented and inconsistent; the former can make them a tough out for a high seed in an early round while the latter could make their postseason participation short-lived.

Four players who pose matchup problems

1. Jae Crowder, Marquette: How has Buzz Williams defied the odds and kept the Golden Eagles a contender in the Big East? With players like Crowder. The 6-foot-6, 235-pound senior handles the ball like a guard and spends a large chunk of his time on the perimeter, which wears down bigger defenders.

2. Doug McDermott, Creighton: Few players, if any, have had such a singular impact on their team as McDermott. The 6-7 sophomore is third in the nation in scoring (22.9 ppg), grabs 8.3 rebounds per game and hits on almost half of his 3-point attempts. The verdict is out as to whether the Bluejays, currently mired in a late-season swoon, were a flash-in-the pan success or if they're merely waiting for a second wind. Mid-major teams often ride the coattails of a singularly spectacular star. Just how bright is McDermott's?

3. Arnett Moultrie, Mississippi State: Dysfunction had become a theme in Starkville before Moultrie, a 6-foot-11 UTEP transfer, took the court for the Bulldogs. He gets up and down the court as well as any big man in the country.

4. Royce White, Iowa State: He failed to deliver upon the lofty expectations that greeted his arrival at Minnesota as a highly touted freshman, but his talent was never in question. White's thriving among Fred Hoiberg's merry band of misfit transfers at Iowa State, and may become the first 6-foot-8, 270-pound point guard in NCAA tournament history.

Four teams from BCS leagues that will sweat it out until Selection Sunday

1. Texas: Rick Barnes has led the Longhorns to 13 straight NCAA tournaments, but this season he's traded first-round picks for gray hairs while guiding a team full of freshmen and a streaky gunslinger in junior guard J'Covan Brown. The Longhorns are dangerous and unpredictable -- but not always in a good way.

Rick Barnes
Few coaches send more players to the NBA than Rick Barnes. With a freshmen-heavy roster, the Longhorns are battling for a place in the NCAA tournament.

2. Minnesota: Tubby Smith has done an admirable job with the Gophers following a season-ending knee injury to Trevor Mbakwe. Unfortunately for the Gophers, the Big Ten has been too strong this season for any team to absorb the loss of its best player. At 5-7 in the league, with games against Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Indiana still on the schedule, Minnesota sits in a precarious position but has the opportunity to play its way into the field.

3. Cincinnati: The Bearcats, who are 17-8, actually got better after their brawl with Xavier. But they're floundering a bit down the stretch with losses in four of their last six games. Four of Cincinnati's final six contests are at home, but two of them are against ranked foes Louisville and Marquette.

4. Miami: Jim Larranaga's first season had been uneventful until the Hurricanes knocked off Duke in Durham, N.C. The Hurricanes have been buoyed by the return of big man Reggie Johnson, who missed nine early-season games with an injury. The 6-10 junior had 27 points and 12 rebounds in the win over the Blue Devils and gives Miami an imposing presence in the paint as well as a little extra swagger.

Four coaches who will either be handed dancing shoes or pink slips

1. Darrin Horn, South Carolina: It seems so long ago when Horn was a Cinderella darling at Western Kentucky, guiding the Hilltoppers to the Sweet 16 in 2008 before riding that wave of good tournament fortune to a BCS job. His carriage is turning into a pumpkin as the Gamecocks have made very little progress in his tenure and currently reside in the SEC's basement at 1-9 in the league. The Sun Belt suddenly doesn't seem so bad.

2. Doc Sadler, Nebraska: The Cornhuskers want a good team for their new basketball arena, which opens in 2013. Nebraska never finished higher than seventh in the Big 12 in five seasons under Sadler, and this season it's fighting to stay out of the Big Ten cellar.

3. Bruce Weber, Illinois: Illini athletic director Mike Thomas stopped short of giving Weber a vote of confidence during his most recent weekly radio show. Illinois is just 5-7 in Big Ten play and hasn't reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament since its national championship game appearance in 2005.

4. Jim Baron, Rhode Island: The Rams had four straight 20-win seasons but are just 5-21 in 2011-12. They've won just two games in the Atlantic 10. That can't be good for Baron, who came to Rhode Island in 2001 after nine seasons at St. Bonaventure.

Four coaches who may parlay a successful NCAA tournament run into a bigger paycheck

1. Gregg Marshall, Wichita State: The fourth-year Shockers coach turned down NC State last spring, so it's obvious he won't leave for just anywhere -- especially with a strong recruiting class on the way. Then again, if Wichita State makes a deep run, someone may make him an offer that's impossible to refuse.

2. Larry Eustachy, Southern Miss: The former Iowa State coach has his team in the Conference USA title hunt. Eustachy is a recovering alcoholic who has turned his life around and is ready for another big-boy job. Eustachy is in his eighth season at Southern Miss and has won 20 or more games the last three years.

Tommy Amaker
Harvard came up just short of making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1946 last year. Is 2012 the year for Tommy Amaker and the Crimson?

3. Randy Bennett, Saint Mary's: The Gaels are no strangers to being mid-major darlings, but they're on course to enter the tournament with the strange sensation of being a high-seeded favorite. Bennett has come close to accomplishing what was once unthinkable: unseating Gonzaga in the WCC. He has the Gaels on course to earn their highest-ever seed. After that, what else is there?

4. Tommy Amaker, Harvard: The Crimson are 21-3 and were in the Top 25 for most of the season before losing to Princeton last week. Amaker, the former Michigan coach, turned down an offer from Miami last spring after the Crimson fell short of the NCAA tournament after losing a one-game playoff against Princeton. There's no excuse for Harvard to not reach its first NCAA tournament since 1946.

Four non-Big Six teams with the moxie to pull a VCU or a Butler

1. Wichita State: The Shockers may be the top mid-major team in the nation. Wichita State features four senior starters -- including 7-footer Garrett Stutz -- and each of its top seven players can score. The Shockers are every bit as good -- if not better -- than last season's VCU team.

2. Temple: Fran Dunphy's squad -- which gets a combined 35.5 points from Ramone Moore and Khalif Wyatt -- is getting hot at just the right time. The Owls have won eight straight and defeated Duke earlier this season.

3. Murray State: The Racers opened the season with 23 straight victories before Tennessee State beat them last week. Point guard Isaiah Canaan is an All-America candidate and will make Murray State a tough out.

4. Long Beach State: Other than Kentucky, the 49ers are deep and athletic enough to beat any team in the country when things are clicking. And they know it, too.

Four reasons why John Calipari's youth movement will finally pay off at Kentucky

1. Center Anthony Davis is the most valuable player in the country. He's solid on the offensive end and, defensively, his presence forces opponents to completely alter their attack.

John Calipari and Anthony Davis
Will John Calipari's youth movement at Kentucky finally be vindicated by a national championship?

2. The Wildcats feature a nice blend of veterans to complement their freshmen. Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones and Darius Miller all played in the Final Four last season.

3. Once again, Calipari has taught his pups how to defend. The Wildcats lead the nation in defensive field goal percentage (35.8).

4. Odds. Kentucky had the best team in 2010 but lost in the Elite Eight. Last season it had the best team at the Final Four but couldn't beat Connecticut. Eventually Calipari has to win one, right?

Four reasons why John Calipari's youth movement will cause the Wildcats to come up short

1. The Wildcats haven't been tested enough -- at least not like they will be if they reach New Orleans. Vanderbilt and Florida have been disappointments in the SEC and Kansas was still green when the two teams faced off in November. The North Carolina win was nice, but that was at home.

2. Marquis Teague: The freshman point guard isn't as good as predecessors John Wall and Brandon Knight. Teague is getting better, but is he good enough to captain a national championship squad?

3. Kentucky's offense isn't always a thing of beauty, especially when the Wildcats are in the half court.

4. Youth. John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe let the big stage get to them two years ago. Knight, Jones and Lamb experienced the same thing as freshmen last season. Will the pressure get to Davis, Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, too?

Four blue bloods who could fall flat on their faces and make an early exit

1. Kansas: Point guard Tyshawn Taylor and forward Thomas Robinson are two of the top players in the country at their respective positions. But the X factor is 7-foot center Jeff Withey, who has played as well as any big man in college basketball the last three games. Still, even Bill Self admits this team has little margin for error, as the Jayhawks found out against Iowa State and Davidson.

Cody Zeller & Tom Crean
It has felt like an eternity in Indiana, but you'll be seeing the Hoosiers back in the Big Dance in four weeks time.

2. Louisville: Considering the injuries Louisville has endured and the relative lack of talent on the Cardinals' roster, as compared to past Rick Pitino teams, this must stand as one of Pitino's most impressive coaching jobs. The Cardinals are one of the country's top defensive teams. Still, they won't be able to hold all of their opponents in the 50s and low 60s.

3. Indiana: The Hoosiers will be making their first NCAA tournament appearance under Tom Crean. They were good enough to beat teams such as Kentucky and Ohio State at home, but can they do it on a neutral court?

4. Florida: The Gators dropped games to Rutgers and Tennessee -- twice. In other words, they're capable of losing to just about anyone.

Four freshmen (besides Anthony Davis) who will have the biggest say in how their team fares in March

1. Austin Rivers, Duke: The Blue Devils point guard had his "aha!" moment when he swished a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly and the Plumlee brothers are nice pieces, but Rivers is the Blue Devils' game changer.

2. Cody Zeller, Indiana: No disrespect to the rest of the Hoosiers, but Indiana would probably be headed for the NIT if not for Zeller, who spearheaded the program's jump back into the Top 25.

3. Quincy Miller, Baylor: The "soft" label bestowed on some of his teammates certainly doesn't apply to Miller, a cocksure small forward who averages 12.4 points on a balanced team. Miller is projected as a top-15 pick in this summer's NBA draft.

4. Bradley Beal, Florida: Last year's Gatorade National High School Player of the Year has been brilliant at times for the Gators. Beal averages 14.4 points but shoots just 43 percent from the field and 33 percent from 3-point range. Florida is a different team when Beal brings his A-game.

Four point guards who will pull the strings come March

1. Kendall Marshall, North Carolina: The most irreplaceable player on the Tar Heels' roster ranks second in the nation in assists with 9.6 per game. Marshall isn't a scoring machine -- and North Carolina doesn't need him to be.

2. Tyshawn Taylor: No major college point guard has been better in conference play than Taylor, who is averaging 18.5 points and five assists against league opponents. Taylor is generating some Big 12 Player of the Year buzz, but he probably won't be able to beat out teammate Thomas Robinson.

3. Casper Ware, Long Beach State: The 49ers' all-time assists leader is a finalist for the Cousy Award, which shouldn't come as a surprise for a senior averaging 17.1 points. Ware's experience in big-time atmospheres should pay off for Long Beach State.

4. Aaron Craft, Ohio State: One of the top defensive points guards in the nation is also the vocal leader and tone-setter for a Buckeyes team that has legitimate NCAA title hopes. Craft averages 2.2 steals.

Four players who could win a game off the bench

1. Michael Dixon, Missouri: The Tigers guard plays starter-like minutes (25.8) and is almost always on the court during close games. His basket in the closing seconds helped Missouri beat Texas in Austin and he hit some huge free throws down the stretch against Kansas.

2. Dion Waiters, Syracuse: The sophomore guard is arguably the top player on the deepest team in America. He plays just 23 minutes per game yet still manages to average 12.4 points. Also the team's best on-ball defender, Waiters averages 2.1 steals.

3. Darius Miller, Kentucky: It says a lot about the Wildcats' talent when an experienced senior such as Miller comes off the bench. His 9.7 points per game haven't been nearly important as his leadership, as Miller has been a calming force on one of America's youngest teams.

4. Otto Porter, Georgetown: The freshman forward has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2011 recruiting class. He plays 29 minutes off the bench and averages 8.8 points and 7.0 rebounds.

Four guys who aren't afraid to take the last shot

1. John Jenkins, Vanderbilt: The junior guard is great when his team is down by two points -- and even better when the deficit is three. Jenkins, who averages 19.5 points, is generally regarded as the nation's top 3-point shooter. You won't find a smoother stroke.

2. J'Covan Brown, Texas: The junior guard is often criticized for shooting too much, but on a team filled with freshmen and lacking other offensive weapons, he doesn't have much choice. Brown is known for going through phases when he can't miss. He's best when his team is trailing late in games.

3. Michael Snaer, Florida State: A few days after his buzzer-beating 3-pointer beat Duke in Durham, Snaer predicted the Seminoles would win the ACC title. It's hard not to admire the kid's confidence.

4. Pierre Jackson, Baylor: Last season's national junior college player of the year has completely changed the Bears. Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller may be Baylor's most talented players, but Jackson -- a point guard -- is the guy the team has looked to late in last-minute wins against Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State.

Four players you may not have heard of … yet

1. Isaiah Canaan, Murray State: The Racers wouldn't be 24-1 if not for Canaan, the point guard who averages 19.6 points a game and shoots 48 percent from 3-point range. A junior, Canaan is a finalist for the Cousy Award.

Isaiah Canaan
If you're not already, familiarize yourself with Murray State guard Isaiah Canaan. He's one to know come March Madness.

2. Damian Lillard, Weber State: The senior leads the nation in scoring with 25.1 points per game. The Wildcats are projected as a No. 15 seed, which means Lillard will have a chance to prove himself against a top-ranked team such as North Carolina, Michigan State or Ohio State.

3. Joe Ragland, Wichita State: The Shockers guard shoots 47 percent from 3-point range and is fearless when it comes to attacking the basket. The former junior college star plays with a mental toughness that has been infectious to his teammates. Make no mistake, Ragland can hang with the big boys.

4. Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary's: By the time his career is finished, Dellavedova may hold the NCAA record for minutes played. The junior has averaged 35 or more minutes in each of his three seasons. This season the Australian is scoring 15.7 points per game while dishing out 6.4 assists.

Four coaches who have done a lot with a little

1. Rick Pitino, Louisville: No team has been hit harder by injuries than the Cardinals, who weren't exactly loaded with NBA talent to begin with. Pitino never flinched. His team continues to play its trademark, menacing defense while scrapping for tough buckets on the offensive end. Somehow, this team is 20-6.

2. Mike Brey, Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish lost Big East Player of the Year Ben Hansbrough from last season's team, and all-conference candidate Tim Abromaitis suffered a season-ending knee injury after just two games. But here Notre Dame is, 9-3 in the Big East with victories over Syracuse, Marquette and Louisville.

3. Steve Fisher, San Diego State: Four starters -- including first-round draft pick Kawhi Leonard -- are gone from last season's Sweet 16 team. But San Diego State hasn't experienced much of a drop off thanks to Fisher, whose team is tied with UNLV and New Mexico at the top of the Mountain West Conference standings.

4. Bo Ryan, Wisconsin: Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil graduated and point guard Jordan Taylor is experiencing a bit of a down year, especially considering he was a preseason All-American. Like he does every year, though, Ryan has the Badgers in line for a high finish in the Big Ten and a good NCAA tournament seed.

Four players you'd pay to see

1. Thomas Robinson, Kansas: The leading candidate for national player of the year didn't even start last season. Robinson, who averages 17.8 points and 12 rebounds, is as close to being unstoppable in the paint as any player in the country.

2. Anthony Davis, Kentucky: The likely No. 1 pick in this summer's NBA draft is the top defensive presence in college basketball. He blocks 4.9 shots per game and alters countless others.

Green/Izzo
Draymond Green and Tom Izzo are picking up steam at just the right time. Is another Final Four run in the Spartans' future?

3. Kevin Jones, West Virginia: Catch Jones early if you can. The Mountaineers -- who have lost five of their past six games -- may not be around very long. Jones averages 20.6 points and 11.2 rebounds. He's scored 20 or more points in 10 of his past 11 games.

4. Draymond Green, Michigan State: The senior is threatening to win the Big Ten Player of the Year award that everyone assumed belonged to Ohio State's Jared Sullinger. Green averages 15 points and 10.5 rebounds. At 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, he's a tough matchup both in the paint and on the perimeter.

Four we'll see in New Orleans

1. Kentucky: The Wildcats appear to be on a different level than anyone else. They have height, length, speed and depth. They can score from long range or in the paint and they defend better than any team in the country. Although there are often exceptions, the teams that reach the Final Four are usually the teams with the best players -- and no one has better players than Kentucky.

2. Syracuse: The Orange may not boast a future NBA All-Star, but Syracuse does have a 10-deep roster that is loaded with experienced players such as Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Kris Joseph. Having a Hall of Fame coach on the sideline certainly helps. Even in a down year for the Big East, going through conference play with only one loss is downright impressive. Syracuse is four wins away from accomplishing that feat.

3. North Carolina: The Tar Heels are the one team in the country that can match up with Kentucky's talent. Just like the Wildcats, North Carolina has three future lottery picks in its starting lineup with Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson. The Tar Heels have been solid but have yet to reach their ceiling. If they do, they could -- and perhaps should -- win the NCAA title.

4. Michigan State: Picking a fourth team was difficult, so why not choose a school that has been to three of the past seven Final Fours? That's a credit to Spartans coach Tom Izzo, whose squad is currently tied for first in the Big Ten with Ohio State. Michigan State -- which ranks ninth in the nation in rebounding -- plays with a fighter's mentality, which can take you a long way in the NCAA tournament.

Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKingESPN.