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.