Sixty-five reasons to celebrate the NCAA Tournament

Sixty-five names, games, teams and minutiae making news in the NCAA Tournament ("One Shining Moment" sold separately):

The greatest three weeks on the calendar have finally arrived, and not a banked-in 3 too soon (thanks for that Championship Week highlight, Miami RedHawks guard Doug Penno [1]). As of 6 p.m. ET, bubble talk and tournament résumés are old news. On to the best sporting event on Earth.

It's now time for those of us who have been living and dying with every dribble since November to look on in disgust as the office pools are won by secretaries who make their picks based on team colors. But before we pack up our pompoms and relocate to Bracketville until early April, The Minutes wants to celebrate the bigness of this coast-to-coast carnival.

The scope of the Big Dance. The diversity under the Big Top. The cast of millions who stage the Big Show.

We've got 65 tickled-pink teams -- none more so than Florida A&M (2), No. 184 in the RPI but No. 1 in the MEAC after scoring on an inbounds alley-oop at the buzzer.

We've got 195 clipboard-carrying assistant coaches -- half of whom will be working the Final Four hotel lobbies trying to land head-coaching jobs. The other half will be working the Final Four bars trying to pick up chicks.

We've got 800 players living a dream. And as the NCAA promotional ads say, most of them will be going pro in something other than sports.

We've got about 1,300 pep band members. All of whom can play "Carry On Wayward Son" in their sleep.

We've got hundreds of thousands of fans who paid good money to get in the arenas and scream at the refs.

We've got millions more fans screaming at the refs at home.

This dance has room enough for both the Mean Green (3) and Tom Crean (4). (That's North Texas and the Marquette coach, if you're scoring at home. Crean has coached seven NCAA Tournament games, which is six more than North Texas has played in its history.)

It has room for all that's Wright (5) in college basketball (Julian, Brandan and State).

Room for former NBA stars (New Mexico State coach Reggie Theus [6]). Offspring of former NBA stars (Georgetown forward Patrick Ewing Jr. [7], among others). And future NBA stars (Messrs. Durant [8] and Oden [9] leading the way).

Room for two sets of Blue Devils (10). (Central Connecticut State has won 17 of its past 18, Duke has lost seven of its past 11.)

And room for a whole flock of Eagles, be they Purple (Niagara [11]), Golden (Marquette [12] and Oral Roberts [13]), or non-color-specific (Boston College [14], Winthrop [15]).

Keeping the Big theme going:

The Minutes applies its pressure gauge to the Tournament field and finds out who will be feeling it most:

Freshmen (16). A rookie class The Minutes believes to be the best college basketball has ever seen will have an unprecedented impact on this tourney. In fact, it's not hard to envision somebody in this group going Melo (17) and taking his team all the way to the national title.

Strong contenders like North Carolina, Kansas and Ohio State all rely heavily on multiple freshmen. So do second-tier teams like Texas, Louisville, Duke and Notre Dame. Several other tourney teams count on major contributions from freshmen (including the Wildcat triumvirate of Villanova, Arizona, Davidson).

As Tar Heels coach Roy Williams (18) pointed out at the ACC tournament on Saturday, today's freshmen are more worldly (at least in a basketball sense) than their predecessors 10 or 15 years ago. Most of them already have been playing high-pressure, high-profile basketball for years. That should prepare this group of pups for the bright lights, but we'll see who handles the big stage best.

Florida (19). The Gators are the first defending national champion in five years to enter their repeat bid as a No. 1 seed (Duke did it last in '02). To The Minutes, Florida looks like the strongest repeat contender since 1997, when Kentucky lost its back-to-back bid in overtime to Arizona. But keep in mind, only one school (Duke '91-92) has repeated since UCLA in 1972-73 -- and remember that it took survival of near-certain elimination against Kentucky for the Blue Devils to do it. Can Florida and its lightning-rod leading man, Joakim Noah, stand up to the stress after playing in a weaker-than-expected SEC?

Tubby Smith (20). No school has a longer active streak of first-round NCAA Tournament victories than Kentucky. It stands at 16 years, stretching back to the Wildcats' ineligibility for postseason play in 1991. Given the mounting heat on Smith during what has been a second straight disappointing season, this would be an especially bad time for that streak to end. The Minutes is convinced that the Kentucky administration wants no part in firing Smith, but a first-round knockout could make life unbearable in Lexington. One more year like this and even Minutes girl Ashley Judd (21) might consider switching allegiances.

Bill Self (22). Brass tacks and hard facts: Self's Kansas teams have been seeded third and fourth the past two tournaments and lost in the first round both times. These Jayhawks are seeded even higher and face even bigger expectations. They could end up going a long way -- but they have to avoid tripping on their first step. Self is the current wearer of the Best Coach Never To Make A Final Four tag.

Pittsburgh (23). The Panthers averaged more than 25 wins the previous five years, but don't even have a regional final appearance to show for it, much less a Final Four. The Minutes is still wondering whether this program has what it takes -- especially offensively -- to break through the Sweet 16 ceiling.

Winthrop. With the Eagles back for their seventh NCAA appearance in the past nine years and probably armed with their best team, it's high time for them to win a game. They should have won last year as a No. 15 seed over Tennessee, but bungled some late possessions and were eliminated on a fabulous late shot by Chris Lofton. Winthrop has never been seeded higher than 14th until now, so the opportunity has never been better.

Mid-majors (24). After last year's breakthrough performances by George Mason, Wichita State and Bradley, the mids will get plenty of attention. Don't count on them to sneak up on anyone this time around, though, which will make shocking the world all the more difficult. Among the mid-majors with the best chance to bust a big move through the bracket: Southern Illinois and Creighton of the Missouri Valley; Gonzaga of the West Coast Conference; Davidson of the Southern; VCU of the Colonial; Holy Cross of the Patriot; Butler and Wright State of the Horizon; and the aforementioned Winthrop of the Big South.

Rick Barnes (25). How often do you get to coach the best player of your life? Only once, and probably only for one year. Better make hay while you have him.

Thad Matta (26). See above.

UCLA (27). The 2006 national runner-up has lost its past two games, both to non-tournament teams. Now that the Bruins have made The Minutes look bad for proclaiming them the most mature team in the country, we'll see whether they can refocus with the season on the line. Ben Howland is recruiting well enough for UCLA to be good for a long time, but there should be a sense of urgency right now with this group.

Since The Minutes is all about service to the readership, it provides the following bracket handicapping advice that will help you rule your pool.

(The Minutes cannot be held liable if Jackson State (28) wins it all and wrecks your bracket.)

• It is perfectly reasonable to doubt every Big Ten team not named Wisconsin (29) or Ohio State (30). Fact: The six teams that followed the Badgers and Buckeyes in the league standings went 24-1 at home against each other. If none of them can beat their mediocre peers away from home, they probably won't beat many opponents in a neutral-court setting, either.

• The 5-12 mojo (31) remains in effect. For six years running, at least one No. 12 seed has beaten a No. 5 seed in the first round. Last year, it happened twice: Texas A&M over Syracuse and Montana over Nevada.

• When shopping for a national champion, remember that coaching experience counts. The past seven championships, and 17 of the past 21, have been won by coaches who previously had been to at least one Final Four. Approximately one-fourth of the coaches in this year's field have worked the sideline on the season's final weekend. Among the significant coaches who haven't: Self, Matta, Wisconsin's Bo Ryan (32), Georgetown's John Thompson III (33), Pitt's Jamie Dixon (34) and Texas A&M's Billy Gillispie (35).

• No ACC team made the 2006 Final Four, which means it's time to cuddle up to at least one team from that league when picking this year's regional champions. Last time the ACC went consecutive years without a Final Four rep: 1979-80. From 1981 to 2005, the league produced an incredible 25 Final Four teams.

Who you gonna call when you absolutely, positively have to have …

A steal: Penn guard Ibrahim Jaaber (36). He's fourth nationally with three swipes per game.

A 3: Texas A&M's Josh Carter (37). He leads the nation in 3-point accuracy at 52 percent and has made 14 of his last 24 attempts from long range.

A clutch free throw: Gonzaga's Derek Raivio (38). He's missed just six of 152 foul shots this season, making him the nation's most accurate man at the stripe.

A last-second shot: A&M's Acie Law IV (39), who has made more clutch baskets than anyone in the country.

A key rebound: Nevada's Nick Fazekas (40), who averages more than 11 boards per game.

A deft pass: Davidson's Jason Richards (41), second nationally in assists at 7.3 per game.

Points in a hurry: Jackson State's Trey Johnson (42), second in the nation in scoring at 27.1 points per game. He had a combined 65 in the SWAC semifinals and finals.

These coaches don't just know how to get to Bracketville but know how to do some damage once they get here:

Mike Krzyzewski (43). NCAA winning percentage: .782. Duke's boss is the winningest coach in NCAA Tournament history, having survived and advanced 68 times. Caveat: Duke has been bounced by a lower-seeded team three years in a row.

Rick Pitino (44). NCAA winning percentage: .756. Nobody in the current field gets his teams to outperform their seeding better than Pitino, who has taken a fourth-seeded Louisville team to the 2005 Final Four and a sixth-seeded Providence team to the 1987 Final Four. Caveat: His young Cardinals could go anywhere from one-and-done to Atlanta.

Tom Izzo (45). NCAA winning percentage: .742. Half of his first eight NCAA Tournament teams advanced to the Final Four, and seven of his 10 tourney teams have won at least one game. Caveat: Two of the past three Michigan State appearances have been one-and-done upsets at the hands of mid-major teams that made a big run (Nevada 2004, George Mason 2006).

Roy Williams (46). NCAA winning percentage: .724. His 42 NCAA wins trail only Krzyzewski, Lute Olson and Bob Knight among active coaches, and his 18 consecutive NCAA appearances trail only Olson's 23. Caveat: Cryin' Roy has been known to tear up much earlier than expected on occasion, with season-ending upset losses to the likes of UTEP, Rhode Island and George Mason in his past.

Tubby Smith. NCAA winning percentage: .700. He's lost only one first-round game, and that was at Georgia back in 1997. Took Tulsa and the Bulldogs to the Sweet Sixteen, and has gotten Kentucky there six times. Caveat: Hasn't gotten Kentucky to the Final Four since 1998, and the Wildcats are looking at the longest Final Four-less streak in school history if they don't make it this year.

Five prominent coaches with losing NCAA Tournament records:

Kelvin Sampson (47). NCAA record: 11-12. Four of those 11 victories came in a 2002 Final Four run at Oklahoma, which counts for something. But his past six tournament teams all have been eliminated by a lower-seeded opponent.

Al Skinner (48). NCAA record: 6-7. He's won at least one game in four of five NCAA appearances at Boston College, but has reached only one Sweet Sixteen.

Ernie Kent (49). NCAA record: 3-4. All three victories came with a No. 2-seeded Oregon team in 2002. The other three appearances all were one-and-done, including two losses to lower-seeded teams.

Tim Floyd (50). NCAA record: 4-5. Hasn't been here in a decade, since he was the coach at Iowa State. Only one Floyd team has ever lost to a lower-seeded team. On the flip side, only one Floyd team has ever beaten a higher-seeded team.

Mike Brey (51). NCAA record: 4-5. This record is better than it looks. Brey is 4-3 at Notre Dame, 0-2 at underdog Delaware. But his Fighting Irish teams also have missed the previous three tournaments.

Almost every team has a guy whose play tends to set the tone for his team's success. The Minutes identifies seven players who might not all be the leading men on their teams but who will have to be on their game to advance.

Derrick Low (52), Washington State. The Hawaiian bomber leads the Cougars in scoring but has struggled a bit down the stretch, averaging just 9.5 points per game and shooting 29 percent from 3-point range in the past month. He's one guy who might have benefited from Wazzu losing in the Pacific-10 tournament Friday and getting some additional rest.

Kammron Taylor (53), Wisconsin. Somebody has to keep the Badgers from being Alando Tucker and 10 guys named Harry. With Brian Butch out, that guy is Taylor more than ever. He went 6-of-27 in Wisconsin's last three games of the regular season -- two of them losses -- but might have gotten right with his stroke when he made the game-winner against Michigan State on Senior Day. He was solid in the Big Ten tournament.

Stephen Curry (54), Davidson. Woe unto the high-seeded team that sleeps on Dell Curry's kid. He hasn't scored fewer than 18 points since Jan. 15, which happens to coincide with the Wildcats' 13-game winning streak. Curry averaged 27.7 ppg and 5.7 rpg in the Southern Conference tournament.

Wink Adams (55), UNLV. Pretty simple: When Adams struggles to hit outside shots, the Rebels struggle. When he's on, they're on. Adams has shot 14 percent from 3-point range in UNLV's losses, 39 percent in its victories.

Terrence Williams (56), Louisville. When Williams is taking good shots and making good passes, the Cardinals are a Final Four contender. When he's not, they're a first-round-knockout contender. During Louisville's last-month surge, Williams has averaged 13.6 points per game, seven rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.8 steals and is shooting 43 percent from the field. (That's progress for a guy shooting 37 percent for the season.)

Jonathan Wallace (57), Georgetown. Everyone says the biggest roadblock to a Hoyas national title run is their guard play. The Minutes does not disagree. Wallace must take care of the ball. He's had 13 assists and 24 turnovers in Georgetown's six losses, 84 assists and 56 turnovers in its wins. He had a stellar 4-to-1 assist-turnover ratio in the Big East tournament.

Mike Jones (58), Maryland. Another guy who can bury a team when he gets hot and bury his own team when he's not. Jones has made 48 percent of his 3s in Terrapins wins, 31 percent in their losses.

The Minutes predicts that the team cutting down the Georgia Dome nets April 2 will come from this list. (And yes, Florida was on The Minutes list last year. Of course, so was second-round loser Ohio State.)

Florida -- When Team Light Switch has it flipped on, everyone else should be playing for second place. And right now, the switch is on. This could be the repeat we've been waiting for since Christian Laettner left the Metrodome in 1992.

North Carolina (59) -- The Tar Heels have every element you could want: size, speed, shooters, passers, rebounders, insane depth, quality coaching. At times, they also have the focus of a kindergarten class and the killer instinct of a Greenpeace group -- which is how you lose five regular-season ACC games, then nearly let an exhausted (but tougher) NC State team win the ACC tournament. But with this much talent and favorable seeding, UNC has to be on the list.

Ohio State (60) -- If Greg Oden keeps raising his game and the Buckeyes get him the damn ball, The Minutes predicts a Final Four run and a renewed debate over who's the No. 1 pick in the June draft. But the Buckeyes still will be susceptible to being knocked out by a horrible shooting night behind the arc.

UCLA -- The Minutes is working under the assumption that the Bruins' early-March stumble is correctable. Given the team's level of experience and perimeter excellence, and Ben Howland's commitment to defense, it's hard to see UCLA mailing anything in. The question is whether the Bruins have the interior power and skill to battle teams like Florida, Ohio State and Carolina.

Memphis (61) -- If the Tigers didn't play in Conference DOA, we probably would be talking about them a whole lot more. But when you're talking about a team that's a giant in a land of midgets, you have to question how tourney tough its players are. You do not have to question the Tigers' talent, depth, scoring power and coaching. And the experience of reaching a regional final last year could help carry Memphis to the next step.

Kansas (62) -- The Jayhawks had an excellent final month of the season, coming together right on time. Their balance and depth will be difficult for anyone to match; they can play fast or slow; and they have all the athleticism a coach could desire. But nobody on this roster has ever won an NCAA Tournament game, and going from none to six in a single spring is a big leap.

Texas A&M (63) -- The Aggies can play championship-level defense and will not back down from a physical challenge. They're tough, they have arguably the most clutch player in the tournament and they can play inside-out offensively. Everyone is impressed with coach Billy Gillispie, but he's won only one NCAA Tournament game in his career.

Georgetown (64) -- The Hoyas came closer than anybody to road-blocking Florida's run last year, and they'll be an exceptionally tough out again this time around. Roy Hibbert is the biggest lane-clogger in the field and rarely misses on the offensive end. Jeff Green might be the most skilled 6-9 guy in the college game, and he's done a better job taking over games down the stretch this season. And JT III's guys guard as if their meal money depends on it.

Texas (65) -- Frighteningly young, but frighteningly good and getting better with every passing game. The Longhorns are on the list just in case Kevin Durant somehow elevates his game to another level, takes over the entire tournament and petitions to join the NBA immediately.

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