We’ve reached the stretch run in the college basketball season, with teams using the next month to maximize their credentials for Selection Sunday.That means it’s time to talk seeding for NCAA brackets. But not for the 68-team tournament that will conclude with the Final Four, April 5-7 in Arlington. We’re talking about the bracket for the season’s top coaches.My top four seeds in efforts to get the final nod as national coach of the year: SMU’s Larry Brown, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall and San Diego State’s Steve Fisher.The next four seeds, all of whom are capable of climbing to the top with a strong NCAA Tournament run: Texas’ Rick Barnes, Arizona’s Sean Miller, Creighton’s Greg McDermott and Villanova’s Jay Wright.The logical front-runner today is Boeheim, who has No. 1 Syracuse (23-0, 10-0 in ACC) rolling through a difficult schedule in its first season as an ACC member. But the sentimental choice, and perhaps the most deserving choice, is Brown.Brown, 73, has made No. 23 SMU (19-5, 8-3 in American Athletic Conference) relevant after two decades as an afterthought in NCAA basketball. The Mustangs head into Thursday’s game at Rutgers in possession of their first AP poll ranking since 1985 and in quest of their first NCAA tournament berth since 1993.Brown, in his second season, has cobbled together a starting lineup comprised of freshman Sterling Brown and four Division I transfers: Shawn Williams (Texas), Markus Kennedy (Villanova), Nick Russell (Kansas State) and Nic Moore (Illinois State). He’s turned last year’s 15-17 team into a defensive-minded unit that rules the paint, cleans the glass and owns a 3-1 record against ranked opponents, including Saturday’s 76-55 rout of then-No. 7 Cincinnati.In short, Brown has done more without an all-America candidate — while working at a school that won its last NCAA tournament game in 1988 — than any of the other coach of the year candidates. To me, that makes him the coach to beat with a month to go.But the Mustangs must improve on their 6-5 mark when playing away from Dallas to make the type of national splash needed to validate Brown’s coach of the year credentials. A longtime NBA coach, Brown understands the challenge he faces in a DFW market enamored with the Dallas Mavericks, not his up-and-coming Mustangs.“When you’re in a pro town with an owner like Mark (Cuban) who has done such a phenomenal job, you’ve got to be pretty good for people to come see you play,” Brown said, reflecting on SMU’s four sellouts at Moody Coliseum, with a fifth on the way (March 5 vs. No. 13 Louisville). “There’s still a lot of big games ahead for us and a lot of goals we want to achieve. We want to give these seniors the opportunity to play their last year as part of a special program. I hope it happens.”If it’s not special enough to carry Brown to national coaching honors, here are seven guys well-positioned to claim that prize: Jim Boeheim, Syracuse: Pursuing an undefeated season in mid-February in a league as competitive as the ACC is rare. If the Orange makes it to Arlington for a second consecutive Final Four appearance, he’ll be tough to beat. Gregg Marshall, Wichita State: Expect the fourth-ranked Shockers (25-0, 12-0 in Missouri Valley) to have this season’s longest flirtation with a possible perfect record. No team has finished undefeated since Indiana’s 1976 national champs posted a 32-0 mark. If WSU gets close, Marshall will earn lots of votes. Steve Fisher, San Diego State: Do not be surprised if the fifth-ranked Aztecs (21-1, 10-0 in Mountain West) reach the Final Four. Fisher’s team features a modern-day rarity: a dependable inside/outside combination bolstered by two seniors: guard Xavier Thames (18.1 points per game) and forward Josh Davis (9.0 points, 11.0 rebounds). Rick Barnes, Texas: Another coach, like Brown, seeking to extend a turnaround season as long as possible. No. 19 Texas (18-5, 7-3 in Big 12), which posted a 16-18 mark last season, is 5-2 against ranked opponents and has enough physical inside players to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament. Sean Miller, Arizona: Miller oversees a powerhouse but is seeking his first Final Four trip as a coach. He’ll get lots of credit if the second-ranked Wildcats (23-1, 10-1 in Pac-12) make it to Arlington because Arizona will play the rest of the year without forward Brandon Ashley (11.5 points, 5.8 rebounds), who suffered a broken foot on Feb. 1. Greg McDermott, Creighton: The Bluejays (19-4, 9-2 in Big East) are thriving in their first season as a Big East member. They are loaded with seniors, none of them better than the coach’s son, Doug McDermott, who leads the team in scoring (25.3 points) and rebounds (7.1). Jay Wright, Villanova: The new beast of the reconfigured Big East, the Wildcats (21-2, 9-1) average 80.4 points per game behind a guard-oriented offense led by James Bell (16.0 points). No. 6 Villanova has high-profile non-conference wins over No. 7 Kansas and No. 16 Iowa.
SPOTLIGHT: RONDAE HOLLINS-JEFFERSON, ARIZONA FAmong this season’s heralded crop of freshmen, Arizona forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (6-foot-7, 215 pounds) has flown beneath the radar most of the season. But he’s front and center now that he’s been elevated into the Wildcats’ starting lineup after the season-ending broken foot suffered by Brandon Ashley, who ranked second on the team in scoring (11.5 points per game) and third in rebounds (5.8 average).Hollis-Jefferson posted a double-double in his first start in Ashley’s absence, Thursday’s 67-65 victory over Oregon (14 points, 10 rebounds). He followed up with a career-high 16 points in Sunday’s 76-54 victory over Oregon State.For the season, Hollis-Jefferson has averaged 8.5 points and 5.6 rebounds while playing 24.1 minutes per game. How well he expands on those numbers between now and the end of the regular season will play a major role in determining whether No. 2 Arizona (23-1, 10-1 in Pac-12) lands a top seed in the NCAA Tournament and emerges as a candidate to reach the Final Four, April 5-7 in Arlington.Ashley was injured in the first two minutes of the team’s 60-58 loss at California on Feb. 1. Hollis-Jefferson has yet to make a road start but will get ample opportunities, starting Friday at Arizona State (18-6, 7-4). Other key road trips include Feb. 19 at Utah (16-7, 5-6), Feb. 22 at Colorado (17-6, 6-4) and March 5 at Oregon State (13-10, 5-6). Hollis-Jefferson’s performance in those contests will help determine Arizona’s NCAA seed, making him one of the country’s most influential freshmen in the final month of the regular season.Storylines Cinderella watch: Massachusetts (19-4). The Minutemen, No. 12 in the updated RPI rankings, are a contender in the Atlantic 10 at 6-3 in league play. The team has a strong inside-outside combination in point guard Chaz Williams, who leads the team in scoring (16.0 points per game) and assists (7.4), along with center Cody Lalanne (13.0 points, 8.6 rebounds). Notable nonconference triumphs include victories over New Mexico, Clemson, LSU, Brigham Young, Providence and Nebraska. Texas connection: No. 14 Kentucky starts three freshmen from Texas (guards Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison, forward Julius Randle). But the most productive has been Randle (6-foot-9, 250 pounds), from Plano’s Prestonwood Christian Academy. He leads the Wildcats in scoring (16.0 points per game) and rebounds (9.8 average) and is the only incoming freshman in the country within striking distance of averaging a double-double in points and rebounds for the entire season. Kentucky (18-5, 8-2 in SEC), the 2012 NCAA champs, should be back in the tournament after playing in the NIT last season.Numbers game 0 Teams averaging more points per game than VMI (90.7), the NCAA’s scoring leader. 2 Teams averaging more than 10 steals per game, VCU (11.7) and UCLA (10.3). 3 Players from Texas colleges ranked among the nation’s top 50 rebounders: Rice’s Sean Obi (9.9 avg.), UT Arlington’s Brandon Edwards (9.7), Houston’s Tashawn Thomas (8.7). 11 Regular-season games that will be missed by the protagonists in Saturday’s player-shoves-heckler incident in Lubbock: Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart (3) and Texas Tech fan Jeff Orr (8), who announced he will not attend another Red Raiders’ game this season. Smart’s three-game suspension began Tuesday night against No. 19 Texas. 71.68 Points per game by NCAA teams this season. If maintained, it would be the highest mark since the 1995-96 season.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch