With March Madness just weeks away, NCAA basketball’s Top 25 are jockeying for position as they head into Selection Sunday. Some of the top-ranked teams have been playing better than ever, while others need a quick turnaround before the postseason arrives.
One team squarely in the former category is the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Marcus Smart’s squad has won nine of its last 10 as it roars into the season’s final games (including a huge showdown with another of the Big 12's ranked teams).
Herein, a closer look at the Cowboys and the rest of this week’s AP Top 25, with an eye to whether they’re moving up or falling off as calendars flip over to March.
Although there are obvious questions to raise about a squad whose losses include McNeese State and Northwestern State, there’s nothing to object to in Louisiana Tech’s recent performance.
Karl Malone’s alma mater is riding one of the nation’s longest winning streaks at 16 consecutive games and counting.
That run includes a perfect 14-0 record in WAC competition, a mark that’s finally put the Bulldogs in the Top 25 for the first time this year.
Season-ending visits to second-place Denver and third-place New Mexico State may break Louisiana Tech’s momentum, but for now, this team is riding high.
February didn’t exactly get off to an encouraging start for Pac-12 leader Oregon, as the Ducks fell out of the top spot in the standings thanks to three straight conference losses.
Since that slide, however, E.J. Singler and his mates have won four of five and stand in a flat-footed (or perhaps web-footed) first-place tie with UCLA.
The Ducks’ lone loss in that span does raise some eyebrows, as they were held to 46 points on their home floor by a Cal squad not usually celebrated for its great defense.
Even with that caveat, though, Dana Altman’s team is clearly heading in the right direction with three winnable games left on its schedule.
Pitt lost a lot of momentum two weeks ago, dropping back-to-back Big East games against ranked foes. Falling on the road at Marquette wasn’t great, but it wasn’t nearly as damaging as a home defeat against Notre Dame.
Still, the Panthers have rallied with blowout wins over St. John’s and South Florida.
Obviously, neither of those opponents approach the same caliber as the teams that had beaten Tray Woodall and company, but a total of 10 Big East wins is still a milestone well worth reaching.
Stock: Bouncing back
The last three weeks have been a roller-coaster ride for Marquette, starting with a tough loss at red-hot Georgetown back on February 11th.
The Golden Eagles appeared to recover well after that defeat, earning a convincing win over dangerous Pitt and blowing out Seton Hall on the road.
However, another road game (at Villanova) turned into the biggest upset loss in months for Junior Cadougan and company.
Once again, they responded in a big way—stunning Syracuse in Milwaukee—but they haven’t exactly been building momentum as the season nears its finish line.
If it weren’t for a disastrous loss at unranked Providence, Notre Dame would be in terrific shape heading into March.
The blowout by the Friars is the only blemish in ND’s last five games, a stretch that’s included wins over Pitt (on the road) and Louisville (in a much-discussed five-OT epic).
That solid February showing has the Irish at 10-5 in the Big East, tied for third place in a top-heavy conference. They’ll need all the good breaks they can get, too, with road dates against Marquette and Louisville still looming in their final three contests.
Stock: Creeping upward
Two shaky weeks can’t erase what’s been an outstanding season for Butler, but they’ve certainly let a lot of the air out of a team that had been ranked as high as No. 9 in the country.
After home losses to Charlotte and St. Louis, Rotnei Clarke and his mates are just 9-4 in Atlantic 10 play and a full two games behind the front-running Billikens.
The news could easily get worse on Saturday when the Bulldogs visit always-dangerous VCU. If there’s one thing the last six weeks of the schedule have proven, it’s that fighting fire with fire against defense-first Butler is a strategy that can definitely pay off.
It’s tough to imagine a scenario in which a single loss could to more damage to a team’s credibility than the one suffered Tuesday night by the Memphis Tigers.
A sloppy 64-62 defeat at Xavier ended Memphis’ 18-game winning streak and immediately called into question the legitimacy of its shiny 24-4 record.
The undefeated leaders of Conference USA are still safely bound for March Madness, but the defeat by the Musketeers is their first bad loss of the season, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time.
The upset validates recurring criticism of a record padded by a pillowy-soft Conference USA schedule and could easily cost the Tigers their place in the national rankings come Monday.
St. Louis’ first big winning streak of the season started at the beginning of December, but nine straight wins didn’t make much of an impression against the likes of Tennessee-Martin and Eastern Illinois.
Now, though, the Billikens are on a 10-game winning run that nobody can afford to ignore.
Dwayne Evans and company have climbed to the top of the Atlantic 10 standings by sweeping Butler and winning their only game of the season against Virginia Commonwealth.
In all, St. Louis is now 4-1 against ranked teams on the year and (barring an upset at Xavier next week) should be one of the most talked-about mid-majors when Selection Sunday rolls around.
Even Wisconsin, hardly known for beating opponents with lightning quickness or explosive leaping ability, can wear down eventually.
That’s as good an explanation as any for the Badgers’ lone February defeat, an overtime loss at Minnesota at the end of a string of three straight games that included a total of four OT periods.
Considering that the teams who have failed to beat Wisconsin this month have included then-No. 3 Michigan and then-No. 13 Ohio State, it’s easy to overlook the comparative weakness of the Badgers' other four victims.
Winning six out of seven in this year’s Big Ten doesn’t happen by accident, and Bo Ryan’s boys are as ready as any squad in the country for the rigors of postseason play.
You could hardly blame the Buckeyes if they’re eager for February to end. Even with their current three-game winning streak (including a signature victory over Michigan State), it’s been a rocky month for Thad Matta’s troops.
A stretch of three losses in four games—albeit to the estimable trio of Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin—made sure that OSU is on the outside looking in where the Big Ten title chase is concerned.
The Buckeyes’ erratic play could well continue into March, when their first game sends them to Bloomington to face the Hoosiers again.
Oklahoma State’s only loss in its last 10 games took two overtimes before Kansas finally won a battle of attrition. Otherwise, the team has been thoroughly unbeatable since Marcus Smart found his groove in Big 12 action.
Led by the superstar freshman PG, the Cowboys have climbed to within a game of first place in the conference, earning wins over Kansas (in Lawrence) and Baylor in the process.
If it can keep up its momentum through a season-ending showdown with Kansas State, Oklahoma State—15-18 a year ago—will have pulled off one of the bigger one-year turnarounds in recent memory.
With decisive wins over two of its toughest competitors in the last five days, New Mexico has left no doubt who’s king of the hill in the Mountain West.
The Lobos’ current four-game winning streak (including a surprisingly easy road win at then-No. 22 Colorado State) has them two games ahead of the pack in one of the toughest conferences outside the Power Six.
Since January 30, Kendall Williams and company have won seven of eight games, with the lone defeat coming on the road against resurgent UNLV. Don’t expect the Lobos to take another loss until the MWC tournament, if then.
Stock: Lifting off
The good news for Kansas State is that four consecutive Big 12 wins have kept them in a first-place tie in the conference.
The bad news is that, having already been swept by co-leader Kansas (including a blowout loss in Lawrence on February 11), there’s only so much it can gain from beating up on West Virginia and Texas Tech.
The Wildcats have won eight of nine overall, but won’t face a ranked opponent until the season finale at Oklahoma State. That game is going to be critical for a K-State team that could really use a statement win and has precious few remaining chances to get one.
Late February is a bad time to suffer back-to-back upsets, but that’s just the start of Syracuse’s problem.
Defeats at the hands of Georgetown (at the Carrier Dome) and Marquette (on the road) are only the latest sign that Jim Boeheim’s team isn’t playing at the same level as last year’s Elite Eight squad.
Since January 26, the Orange are 4-5 in conference play after starting 6-0. Their only quality win in that span came at home against Notre Dame, and they’d better shape up in short order.
No. 10 Louisville and the No. 7 Hoyas (in D.C.) are both lurking among ‘Cuse’s three remaining opponents on the season.
The preseason Pac-12 favorites from Arizona have hardly been playing like it lately. A massive upset loss at USC on Wednesday night dropped the Wildcats to 3-3 in their last six games.
Considering the lack of high-end opposition in their league, Arizona’s inability to run away with the Pac-12 crown is worrisome to say the least.
Even if Mark Lyons and company can pull off a road win at UCLA on Saturday, it won’t do a whole lot more than stop the bleeding.
A run of seven wins in eight Big East games ought to be a big deal, but Louisville’s version doesn’t hold up especially well under scrutiny. The streak did start with solid wins over Pitt and Marquette, but even then, both of those victories came at home.
Otherwise, the Cardinals are devoid of quality February wins, making their one loss (in quintuple-OT at Notre Dame) that much bigger.
There’s still time to finish strong—a visit to Syracuse on Saturday and a season-closing date with the Irish in Louisville—but right now, Russ Smith and his mates aren’t looking quite as impressive as their record.
Stock: Inching up
Just when it looked like the Spartans were ready to take over the Big Ten…they weren’t. Back-to-back losses against Indiana and Ohio State dropped Keith Appling’s squad to 11-4 in conference, a game behind the league-leading Hoosiers.
March opens with two more vicious matchups—at Michigan, home to Wisconsin—so there’s no guarantee the losing skid will end at two.
Michigan State is still a tremendous team, but it’s heading in the wrong direction with Selection Sunday coming up fast.
Winning at home is all well and good, but NCAA tournament games aren’t played in front of your home fans. That’s a lesson Billy Donovan would do well to drill into his banged-up Gators, who have lost three of their last four away from Gainesville.
Worse yet, all three defeats came against unranked opponents, and the lone win was a visit to 9-19 Auburn. Florida gets only one more chance to reverse the trend before the postseason: a March 9 visit to Rupp Arena and still-dangerous Kentucky.
It doesn’t get much better than Georgetown’s performance in the past five weeks. The Hoyas have won 10 games in a row, four of them against ranked teams, in jumping to the top of the Big East standings.
There’s almost nowhere to go but down for Otto Porter Jr. and his mates, though a season-ending win against Syracuse in D.C. would be one more significant boost.
On the flip side, it’s far from impossible that the Hoyas will become the fourth ranked team this year to suffer a deflating loss at Villanova when they visit the Wildcats on March 6.
All but left for dead after a three-game losing skid in early February, Kansas is back at the top of its game. The Jayhawks’ five-game winning run includes a home demolition of Kansas State and a double-OT thriller on the road at Oklahoma State.
With those victories, KU holds a share of first place in the Big 12 and a season sweep of the co-leading Wildcats.
The rest of the Jayhawks’ schedule is more or less a formality, though, so don’t expect any additional jumps in their national ranking unless somebody ahead of them takes a fall.
Stock: Leveling off
The country’s hottest team until last weekend, Miami is still in a decidedly enviable position. The ACC leaders are 14-1 in conference, 2.5 games up on second-place Duke with three to go.
Obviously, the lone loss on that ledger (a convincing upset at Wake Forest) took a bite out of the Hurricanes’ aura of invincibility.
Still, they didn’t show any hangover Wednesday in thrashing Virginia Tech, and a Saturday win over Duke would cure a multitude of ills.
With every Big Ten team having lost at least three conference games, it’s not that there haven’t been plenty of upsets of one magnitude or another.
Still, Michigan’s Wednesday defeat at Penn State is in a whole different category: a major contender for upset of the season anywhere in the country.
Falling to the Nittany Lions (0-14 in conference coming in) leaves Trey Burke and the Wolverines at a woeful 3-4 in their last seven games.
They do have the opportunity to redeem a lousy month if they can beat Michigan State and Indiana to close out the season, but that’s a definite long shot right now.
Even more than Miami, Duke will have a lot to say about where its stock is headed in the next few days. Thursday night’s visit to Virginia and Saturday’s home date with the ‘Canes could make or break the Blue Devils’ shot at a No. 1 seed.
For the moment, Coach K’s squad is mostly treading water after predictable wins over Virginia Tech and Boston College.
A February 16 upset at Maryland shattered any long-range progress the Blue Devils had made, so the complexion of their season will be determined between now and Saturday night.
There’s very little fault to find with a team that’s won 27 of 29 games for the season. Gonzaga’s only losses have come against other ranked teams, and one of them required a miraculous buzzer-beater from Butler’s Roosevelt Jones.
Since that January 19 shocker, Kelly Olynyk and his mates have reeled off another 10 wins in a row, including finishing off a season sweep of a very tough St. Mary’s team.
That win put a stranglehold on yet another WCC title for the Zags, who have a very real chance of heading into the postseason as the nation’s top-ranked team.
Much like the Michigan State team they took down last week, the Hoosiers were brought up short just as they looked ready to lock up the Big Ten.
Tuesday’s upset loss at unranked (though admittedly talent-rich) Minnesota was the second bad defeat Indiana has taken away from home in the past month.
Considering that IU’s season ends with a road date at high-scoring Michigan, that’s a problem that needs to be fixed quickly. Wins over the Wolverines and Ohio State (on March 5) would leave the Hoosiers in the catbird seat headed for the postseason.
That said, it wouldn’t be any surprise to see Indiana lurch into the conference tourney after splitting its final two games.