NCAA Basketball Top 25 Power Rankings: Conference Tourney Edition
The season where no one wanted to be No. 1. That's how we'll remember 2013.
Actually, the craziness that is sure to ensue over the next few weeks will probably be how we remember 2013.
Over a two-day span just this past weekend, we had winners in the final seconds (most buzzer-beaters) by Alabama, Marquette, Belmont, Valparaiso, Wright State, McNeese State, Central Arkansas, George Washington, Air Force, Houston, Idaho State, Wisconsin and Indiana.
The sharing is caring mentality at the top was evident by the power six conference races that (sort of) got decided this weekend.
Michigan was a rotation of the ball away from making the Big Ten a four-way tie for first. Kansas and Kansas State both lost on Saturday to guarantee themselves a share of the Big 12 title instead of winning it outright. And in the final year of the Big East as we knew it, three teams (Georgetown, Marquette and Louisville) shared the final title.
Trophies for everyone!
In the ACC and SEC, where Miami and Florida ran away with the conference crowns weeks ago, they both tried to come back to the field over the last few weeks.
No lead is safe. No team is a sure-thing. Get your red marker ready for your bracket.
Here's one final attempt at ranking the best 25 before the madness proceeds.
Note: All advanced stats come from KenPom.com.
Previous Ranking: Unranked
Why They're Here: Two years ago, Arizona finished the regular season with seven losses and nearly made it to the Final Four, losing in the Elite Eight to eventual champion Connecticut.
These Cats finished the regular season with six losses, and they have the talent to go on a run, as evidenced by their undefeated non-conference run that included wins over Florida and Miami. They also have one-and-done potential (see their inconsistencies in the Pac-12).
There's a good chance Sean Miller is not even sure what the next few weeks will bring.
Next Real Test: A possible third meeting with Colorado. Expect drama.
Previous Ranking: 25
Why They're Here: The ongoing soap opera at UCLA might be losing some of its appeal.
Winning the Pac-12 should bring with it some job security, right?
Ben Howland hopes so. He deserves some credit for blending a top six rotation that included three freshmen and three transfers.
Other than a difficult-to-explain loss last week at Washington State, the Bruins played solid ball down the stretch to win the Pac-12 title outright.
Next Real Test: If the Bruins get past the winner of Stanford-Arizona State, they'll likely play the winner of Arizona-Colorado in the Pac-12 semis.
23. Colorado State
Previous Ranking: Unranked
Why They're Here: The hype on Colorado State cooled off after Larry Eustachy's team lost three of four recently.
That means the Rams might be looked at as a surprise if they do well in the tourney. They shouldn't be.
CSU went 11-5 in the Mountain West and has one of the best scorers from the block in the country in Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson. Iverson averaged 25 points in two wins this past week and made 19 of his 21 shots in doing so.
Gophers fans might beg to differ, but Iverson is for real, and so are the Rams.
Next Real Test: A likely semifinal matchup against UNLV. The Rebels and Rams split their two games this season.
Previous Ranking: Unranked
Why They're Here: Creighton, like several other conference champs, gained some doubters during a three-game losing streak in early February, including a 19-point loss at Indiana State.
The Bljuejays avenged that one in the Missouri Valley semis with a 21-point win over the Sycamores, and they are once again one of the mid-major teams to watch in the tourney.
The best sign in Sunday's win against Wichita State for Greg McDermott might be that his son was off, yet the Blue Jays still won. Doug McDermott scored 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting, which is off by McDermott standards, and three teammates picked up the slack by scoring in double figures.
Next Real Test: The NCAA tournament
Previous Ranking: 19
Why They're Here: Wisconsin started the season trying to figure out what to do at point guard after Josh Gasser tore his ACL.
The eventual replacement ended the regular season on Sunday in style by burying a three at the buzzer to give the Badgers their 12th Big Ten win.
Traevon Jackson, the son of former NBA guard Jim Jackson, made all three of his threes against Penn State, including the game-winner, and scored 15 points. He has not been as steady as Gasser may have been, but he's been better than expected and has allowed Bo Ryan's machine to keep on churning out wins.
Next Real Test: Assuming Michigan beats Penn State, Wisconsin will open the Big Ten tourney against the Wolverines.
20. Saint Mary's
Previous Ranking: 23
Why They're Here: San Diego did a great job of taking away Matthew Dellavedova's good looks in Saturday's WCC semis, and the Saint Mary's star missed nine of his first 10 shots.
The Toreros forgot about Dellavedova one time, and that's why the Gaels will play Gonzaga on Monday in the championship game.
Dellavedova buried a three with 10 seconds left in regulation to send the game to overtime, and the Gaels hung on for a 69-66 win. Dellavedova also had 12 assists, and big man Brad Waldow took advantage of the attention paid to the Aussie by scoring a career-high 23 points.
The lesson: SMC can win with someone else doing the scoring.
Next Real Test: Monday's WCC final against Gonzaga.
19. North Carolina
Previous Ranking: 18
Why They're Here: During North Carolina's six-game winning streak that Duke ended on Saturday, UNC averaged better than nine threes a game and shot 42.3 percent from distance.
The Heels went ice cold against the Blue Devils—1-of-14 from distance—and that's a big reason why the game got away.
Roy Williams would be smart to stick to his small-ball lineup and continue to give his players free reign from deep. It was the first time since losing at Indiana in November that UNC had been held to one three, and it's doubtful Duke figured something out that no one else could see.
The Heels may have struggled for one game, but their small-ball style is still a tough one to defend.
Next Real Test: North Carolina will open the ACC tournament against the winner of Clemson-Florida State.
Previous Ranking: 16
Why They're Here: Here's a tip for the tourney—do not change the channel on VCU no matter what is happening.
On Sunday, for instance, Temple jumped out to a 12-3 advantage on VCU. Then VCU went on an 18-0 run and eventually pushed its lead to 14. And Temple ultimately won the game by eight.
Apparently Shaka Smart's "Havoc" style is good for a lot of runs by both teams. The Rams are great at forcing turnovers, but they're not so good defending in the half-court. So once an opponent settles down and can beat the press, the game can change instantly, making the Rams and whoever is playing them the two wildest teams in the country.
Next Real Test: The Rams get the winner of Xavier-Saint Joseph. Xavier has recent wins against Memphis and Saint Louis.
17. New Mexico
Previous Ranking: 12
Why They're Here: New Mexico lost at Air Force on Saturday, which should end any talk of the Lobos getting a No. 1 seed.
The Lobos are a good team and have had a nice season, winning a tough Mountain West conference, but they're not No. 2 good, which is where they rank in the RPI.
Not to pick on Steve Alford's team, but this is yet another example of why the RPI should become extinct.
Next Real Test: Assuming the Lobos get past the Wyoming-Nevada winner, they'll play the winner of San Diego State-Boise State in the MWC semis on Friday.
Previous Ranking: 20
Why They're Here: Jamie Dixon has his best defense at Pitt since his first season in 2004.
One big reason why has been how well the Panthers have defended the perimeter. Opponents are making only 30 percent of their threes against Pitt, a number that dropped to 28.3 percent in Big East games.
Pitt has won four straight, and opponents are shooting just 27.7 percent from the arc during that stretch, while Pitt has made 46.8 percent of its threes.
Next Real Test: Pittsburgh will likely face Syracuse on Thursday in the Big East quarterfinals.
Previous Ranking: 17
Why They're Here: This is the first of several endorsements this week for Coach of the Year honors. It's likely that John Thompson III will win in the Big East, but Buzz Williams would be my pick.
Marquette was picked by the coaches to finish seventh in the preseason, and the Golden Eagles went 14-4 in the conference for the second straight year. This season was good enough to finish tied for first in the league.
Marquette accomplished that with the Big East's most efficient offense, which is even more impressive when considering Williams did not return one double-digit scorer off last season's team.
Next Real Test: Marquette will likely face Notre Dame in Thursday's quarterfinals of the Big East tournament.
14. Kansas State
Previous Ranking: 15
Why They're Here: Credit Frank Martin for getting the players to Manhattan good enough to win a Big 12 title. Credit Bruce Weber for making the Wildcats watchable this season and winning with this group.
K-State still makes it really hard to run offense—a Martin staple—and Weber brought an offense to Manhattan that was one of the Big 12's bests.
The Wildcats might not have quite enough talent to get to Atlanta, but expect them to play to their seed, as they are one of the few teams that has avoided a bad loss all year.
Next Real Test: Kansas State will likely face Texas in the Big 12 quarterfinals. The Longhorns are better than their seed and record (15-16) now that they have Myck Kabongo.
13. Saint Louis
Previous Ranking: 10
Why They're Here: One reason the Billikens have been so good is that they never have to rely too heavily on one player.
Xavier ended SLU's 11-game winning streak by baiting one player into trying to do a little too much. Saint Louis sixth man Cody Ellis missed all 15 of his shots in a 77-66 overtime loss at Xavier last week.
Lesson learned. The Billikens responded with a more balanced attack on Saturday in a 78-54 win over La Salle in which they made 64.1 percent of their twos and shot 38.5 percent from three.
The Bills made it through a really good conference at 13-3, and because of their great balance, they will be a team that no one wants to see in the tourney.
Next Real Test: Saint Louis could play Butler or La Salle in the A-10 semis.
Previous Ranking: 8
Why They're Here: The good news for Billy Donovan is, his team is as good as any team in the country at blowing out opponents. The Gators have 24 wins by double digits.
If it just weren't for those darn close games...
The Gators are now 0-5 in games decided by single digits. They missed their final 11 shots and did not score in the final 7:36 in a loss on Saturday at Kentucky.
Unless Florida figures out a way to loosen the collar when the game gets close, it's tough to buy in to Donovan's crew.
Next Real Test: The SEC semifinals against possibly Alabama or Tennessee.
11. Oklahoma State
Previous Ranking: 14
Why They're Here: Why coaches across the country fawn all over Marcus Smart was on display during a 15-3 run against Kansas State on Saturday that wiped out a nine-point Wildcats lead.
Smart scored five points during the run, had two assists, baited Angel Rodriguez into an offensive foul when he was trying to get free from Smart on a sideline inbound and he also had a defensive rebound during the stretch.
When you hear talking heads say he doesn't play like a freshman, it's actually true in this case. Smart is a bad man.
Next Real Test: Oklahoma State plays Baylor in the Big 12 quarterfinals Thursday. The Bears will be motivated, as they likely need at least one win to get into the tourney.
Previous Ranking: 7
Why They're Here: Possibly a little complacency set in for the Hurricanes after they started out 13-0 in the ACC.
They finished off their first ACC championship by losing three of their final five, including bad losses to Wake Forest and Georgia Tech.
If you watched Miami in the Ryan Kelly game, you know that Jim Larranaga's team is still pretty darn good. Any squad that can stay in the game when Kelly is dropping 36 should be considered top 10.
Maybe a new challenge (the postseason) will get the 'Canes back to those guys who were rolling through the ACC.
Next Real Test: Assuming the Hurricanes make it past the quarterfinals, they will likely play the winner of N.C. State-Virginia in the ACC semifinals on Friday.
Previous Ranking: 9
Why They're Here: Michigan went all Memphis in 2008 to give Indiana the Big Ten outright championship on Sunday. (Hat tip to the Hoosiers for pulling it off.)
Unlike Memphis, Michigan is actually a decent free-throw-shooting team and entered Sunday at 71.4 percent. Memphis finished 2008 at 61.4 percent.
Tough break for the Wolverines, as the free-throw shooting and bad roll at the buzzer were not the only what-ifs in this game. The officials should have called a flagrant foul on Christian Watford shoving Glenn Robinson III late in the game.
Michigan has some deficiencies, but what happened in one game Sunday was not enough to call this team suspect in the clutch. Don't bet against Trey Burke next time around in that situation.
Next Real Test: By losing Sunday, Michigan went from a tie for first in the Big Ten to having to play in the opening round against Penn State. The Nittany Lions upset the Wolverines on Feb. 27. Win that and Michigan will play Wisconsin.
8. Michigan State
Previous Ranking: 11
Why They're Here: The postseason is here, so it's Tom Izzo time.
Izzo has a team plenty capable of getting to the Final Four. Sparty has been dominant at times, and when the team has struggled, it has been all about the point guard play.
Keith Appling and Travis Trice seem to be trending back upward after two wins this past week. In those two games, Appling and Trice combined to score 48 points, went 16-of-27 from the field, dished out 10 assists and combined for four turnovers.
Next Real Test: Michigan State opens the Big Ten tourney against the winner of Iowa-Northwestern. The Hawkeyes are currently on the bubble, and a win against the Spartans could get them in.
7. Ohio State
Previous Ranking: 13
Why They're Here: That Thad Matta fella is pretty good at coaching, huh? Are we sure he's not the one related to the Harbaughs?
Like the Super Brothers, Matta gets every ounce of ability out of his team, and he has the Buckeyes playing their best basketball of the season by far.
They ruined Senior Night for Indiana and then played a solid game in a win over Illinois on Sunday.
Here's a vote for Matta as Big Ten Coach of the Year, and if the Buckeyes qualified (they probably don't), they're a good pick as a Final Four sleeper.
Next Real Test: Ohio State gets the winner of Purdue-Nebraska to open the Big Ten tournament. Not as easy as it sounds. Purdue won two of its last three, knocking off Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Previous Ranking: 4
Why They're Here: Oklahoma State gave Kansas an assist on Saturday by defeating Kansas State and guaranteeing KU at least a share of its ninth straight Big 12 title and the No. 1 seed in the conference tourney.
The Jayhawks must have busted out the bubbly right away. Hours later, they came out against Baylor and played like a team that had little incentive to win.
The good news for KU fans is, this team is still capable of being really good when it plays with energy on the defensive end, where Jeff Withey can dominate. Entering Saturday, KU was on pace to set an NCAA record for field-goal percentage defense.
It was also a loss in March to the Bears last year that served as a wake-up call. The Jayhawks responded by ratcheting up their D and going on a run to the national championship game.
Enjoy your bubbly and don't overreact to the Baylor beatdown, KU fans.
Next Real Test: The Big 12 semis against the winner of Iowa State-Oklahoma.
Previous Ranking: 5
Why They're Here: Jim Boeheim was not going to get beat by Otto Porter again on Saturday. His strategy was the equivalent of loading up on the run against the best running back in the league.
Boeheim made sure he had Porter surrounded at all times and limited the soon-to-be Big East Player of the Year to seven shots and 10 points.
This is what separates Porter from any wing in the country. He still had a big influence on the outcome, taking advantage of Syracuse's strategy by dishing out seven assists.
The next few weeks other teams will try to take away Porter. Good luck. The Hoyas proved on Saturday they're able to help out their star.
Next Real Test: Georgetown gets the winner of Cincinnati-Providence in the quarterfinals on Thursday at the Big East tournament.
Previous Ranking: 6
Why They're Here: Since losing the five-overtime game at Notre Dame, Louisville has allowed just 0.83 points per possession in seven straight wins.
If the season ended today, the Cardinals would have the best adjusted defensive efficiency of any team in the Ken Pomeroy era (since 2003).
Read: Louisville is really, really, ridiculously good at defense.
There should still be some concerns for Rick Pitino about his offense and Russ Smith's bouts with shot selections, as he's rarely selective. But the Cardinals are more consistent on that end than they were last year, ranking 17th in Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency compared to 103rd in 2012.
And even when Smith is off, that defense is good enough to keep the Cards alive. Somehow, a team with Mr. Russdiculous might be one of the teams you can trust the most in your bracket.
Welcome to March Madness 2013, folks!
Next Real Test: A Big East quarterfinal game on Thursday against the winner of Villanova-St. John's.
Previous Ranking: 1
Why They're Here: Cody Zeller is the player who has the most control over the NCAA tournament.
The Hoosiers are still the best team. The reason they are not at the No. 1 spot here is because too many times, they've let their opponent take away Zeller and dictate tempo—Ohio State most recently.
The most significant thing to come out of the wild back-and-forth win on Sunday at Michigan was how Zeller played.
The blueprint to stop Big Handsome has been to make him score over length and not let him beat your bigs down the floor. The Wolverines actually did a pretty good job of executing that game plan, only it didn't matter. Zeller posted hard and was able to finish with both hands over the defense.
Now this was just Michigan, a team not exactly known for its D. But give credit to Zeller. He played like a grown man on the block, and those words will be repeated if the Hoosiers cut down the nets in Atlanta.
Next Real Test: Congrats on winning the Big Ten, Hoosiers. You get to open the conference tourney against the winner of Illinois-Minnesota, two teams that beat IU this year.
Previous Ranking: 3
Why They're Here: Early on this season, Duke had a mental edge on the rest of the country.
In close games, there was no doubt the Blue Devils were going to make the right plays and would not be intimidated by the moment. It might just have been they were so excited to be involved in big moments instead of watching Austin Rivers dribble out the clock and take a bad shot.
Hey look, this game is easier when you share!
The Blue Devils were the old guys who finished collectively without a guy who had hero syndrome. That sort of invincibility and confidence in each other was absent when Ryan Kelly went down.
Now that Kelly is back, the Devils have regained their edge. They also want to prove that at full strength, they are the best team in the country, and that's what Saturday's win at North Carolina was about.
That sort of urgency should be present with any top team this time of year, but some of the others seem to be lacking. That's why from a mental standpoint, Duke is the team most equipped to win it all.
Next Real Test: A possible matchup in the semifinals with North Carolina.
Previous Ranking: 2
Why They're Here: It's likely Duke or a Big Ten team will end up as the the No. 1 overall seed. The selection committee will penalize the Zags for playing in the WCC, but it's probably not going to be much of a penalty.
So long as the Zags beat St. Mary's on Monday, they'll likely be the No. 1 seed in the West.
Something is to be said for taking care of business this season. The Zags just keep winning, and they're usually at their best against good teams.
They have their flaws—perimeter defense is susceptible to allowing a guard to have a career day (see Brandon Paul)—but every top team this year has its flaws. Gonzaga has done what it's supposed to do, and Kelly Olynyk and an offense that can score against anyone deserve to be in this spot.
Next Real Test: A third meeting with Saint Mary's on Monday in the WCC championship game.