Team to beat
Michigan State (26-8) was a bit of an illusion most of the winter: Most observers knew there was more to the Spartans than they were seeing.
Arguably the nation's most snake-bitten team, Michigan State is downright venomous now. Once-injured starters Adreian Payne (foot), Keith Appling (wrist) and Branden Dawson (hand) all are healthy. And MSU has won four of five, including three in the Big Ten tournament by an average of 12.7 points.
"It was the most difficult year of my whole career here just because you fight making excuses, you fight the realization, you fight players being down about it," coach Tom Izzo (above) said. "I've got a minor in psychology, a major in medicine, and a two-year degree in basketball coaching this year, so it was a little reversed than other years."
By leading his team to the Big South tournament title, Coastal Carolina's Cliff Ellis entered a rare pantheon, becoming the 10th coach to lead four different programs to the NCAA Tournament.
A 68-year-old Florida State alumnus, Ellis also has led South Alabama, Clemson and Auburn to the NCAAs. His 2003 Auburn club, a No. 10 seed, upset St. Joseph's and Wake Forest at what was then the St. Pete Times Forum before falling to eventual national champion Syracuse in the Sweet 16.
Providence over North Carolina. The 11th-seeded Friars, who on Saturday won the first tournament title in the revamped Big East, have won six of seven, including a 65-58 upset of Creighton in the conference final.
The Heels, on a two-game skid, might lead the nation in schizophrenia. Their huge wins (Duke, Michigan State, Louisville) have been offset by horrible losses (Belmont, UAB).
PG Shabazz Napier, UConn. Veteran point guards are a prerequisite for tournament success, and the Huskies have one in the American Athletic's player of the year. In 39 minutes against Louisville on Saturday, Napier had one turnover.
G Bryce Cotton, Providence. This 6-foot-1 senior dynamo thrust himself into the nation's consciousness with a dazzling run in the Big East tournament. In the semis against Seton Hall, he had 18 points and 10 assists.
G Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia. Senior Joe Harris might have been ACC tourney MVP, but Brogdon scored a game-high 23 on Duke in the final. In a nine-game stretch in league play (all wins), Brogdon was UVA's top scorer seven times.
Joey Knight, Times staff writer