NCAA tournament pregame primer

The Times’ Patrick Stevens breaks down the field of 68

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Best senior class: Lamar: No one would have suggested this after a Feb. 22 loss at Stephen F. Austin. Coach Pat Knight eviscerated the leadership of his seniors, and video of it went viral. Six consecutive victories later, the Cardinals are in the tournament for the first time since 2000.

Best father-son duo: Creighton: Greg McDermott fled Iowa State for Creighton to perform a little career revival two years ago. Guess what helped? Bringing along his son Doug, who is averaging 23.2 points and shot 61 percent from the floor for the Bluejays, who won the Missouri Valley tournament.

Best team no one is talking about: Memphis: The Tigers didn’t take advantage of their early-season chances to lock up impressive wins, but no matter. Josh Pastner’s team remains loaded with talent. Memphis has won 11 of 12 and coasted through the Conference USA tournament. Memphis is a serious round of 16 contender.

Best lion in late winter: Jim Calhoun, UConn: While his many triumphs over health scares and enemies real and imagined, it seems like Calhoun is practically indestructible. But trouble looms, with defections to the NBA and a tournament ban for 2013 on the way. But don’t count out the possibility the three-time national champ makes things interesting in the next few weeks.

Best mayor: Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State: The Cyclones aren’t a Final Four contender, but Hoiberg deserves praise for getting his alma mater back to the NCAA tournament in only his second season. Known as “The Mayor” in Ames during his playing days, Hoiberg cobbled together a roster that’s beaten both Kansas and Baylor this season.

Best comeback: Robbie Hummel, Purdue: After back-to-back ACL tears, Hummel returned to lead the Boilermakers in scoring (16.3) and rebounding (7.1). His injuries probably cost Purdue a shot at a Final Four last season, but his presence was crucial to this year’s team navigating its way to the Boilers’ sixth straight NCAA appearance.

Best battle-tested low-major: Long Beach St.: Dan Monson took the 49ers to Pittsburgh. And San Diego State. And Louisville. And Kansas. And North Carolina. And to Hawaii, where they faced Xavier and Kansas State. Long Beach won the Big West and will not be remotely rattled by a big stage. The 49ers should be a chic upset pick.

Best response to a brawl: Cincinnati: The Bearcats dramatically improved their seeding with victories over Georgetown and Syracuse in the Big East tournament. But remember, this team was 5-3 when a brawl against Xavier led to the suspensions of several players. The Bearcats started playing better, winning 19 of 26 to lock up a bid.

PLENTY TO PROVE (teams/players/coaches with a lot on the line)

Colorado State: So, are the Rams simply a team that wins a bunch of home games and played the RPI formula perfectly? Or can they make a serious impression during their first NCAA appearance since 2003? With no top-100 wins outside of Fort Collins, this isn’t a bunch that’s earned the benefit of the doubt.

Gonzaga: As omnipresent as the Zags are - this is their 14th straight NCAA appearance - they’ve advanced to the second weekend just once in the last five years. With a smattering of solid wins to go with a fairly talented roster, Mark Few could still coax a little more out of this year’s bunch.

Tommy Amaker, Harvard: Hard as it is to believe, Amaker is coaching in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2000. He also happens to have a loaded Crimson team that survived arguably the most ferociously competitive Ivy League season ever. Harvard has a shot to make some noise in the next week.

C.J. McCollum, Lehigh: How the Gatorade Player of the Year in Ohio ever wound up in the Patriot League is anyone’s guess. But the 6-foot-3 McCollum has a chance to show just what everyone missed out on while making his second NCAA appearance. Two years ago, he dropped 26 on Kansas in a loss.

Marquette: Here’s a question: Despite a second-place finish in the Big East, the presence of the league Player of the Year (Jae Crowder) and a trip to the second weekend last season, are the Golden Eagles underrated? It’s tough to believe, but Marquette is surprisingly overlooked for a protected seed.

Steve Alford, New Mexico: Back in 1999, Alford led what was then called Southwest Missouri State to the regional semifinals. He’s 2-4 in the NCAA tournament since then during stops at Iowa and New Mexico, twice losing to a double-digit seed. After an impressive Mountain West title run, it’s time to see if he can sustain some postseason mojo.

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