As each week goes by in the 2013-14 college basketball season, one thing is becoming abundantly clear.
The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee is going to have its hands full. I can’t imagine the debates that will occur in that meeting room in Indianapolis in the hours leading up to Selection Sunday. This year more than ever, deciding how to rank the best teams in America is a maddening task.
Just when Kansas appeared to be a Final Four favorite, the Jayhawks lost to Texas. Actually, check that. Bill Self’s team was smashed by the Longhorns on a night when it trailed by as many as 20 points.
Arizona dropped its first game of the season to unranked Cal and Michigan State lost to Georgetown. I know, I know. The Spartans didn’t have Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson, but still ... Georgetown?
The only two constants this season have been Syracuse and Wichita State, the only two schools who have yet to lose a game. But I’m not sure the Orange or the Shockers are that much better than the rest of the teams in the Top 10. I’m confident my colleagues and fellow voters C.J. Moore and Kerry Miller agree.
Whatever the case, the parity has made for a wildly entertaining season for college basketball fans. February and March promise to be even better.
25. California (15-7, 6-3 in Pac-12): Justin Cobbs, who hit the winning shot against Arizona Saturday, has been a hero all season for the Golden Bears. He’s averaging 15.7 points and six assists.
24. SMU (17-5, 6-3 in AAC): Where are all those people who laughed at SMU’s decision to hire Larry Brown and said it would never work? The Mustangs are undefeated at home.
23. Connecticut (17-4, 5-3 in AAC): Amazing that Connecticut can lose on the road to Houston and then beat the Cougars by 37 points a month later in Stoors.
22. LSU (14-6, 5-3 in SEC): Last week’s win over Kentucky wasn’t that huge of an upset, folks. The Tigers boast one of the most talented lineups in the SEC with players such as Jordan Mickey, Johnny O’Bryant and Jarell Martin.
21. Oklahoma State (16-5, 4-4 in Big 12): Marcus Smart has made just three of his last 28 attempts from three-point range and just 13 of his last 53 shots (24.5 percent) overall. Ouch.
20. Oklahoma (17-5, 6-3 in Big 12): Gonzaga transfer Ryan Spangler is averaging 11.1 points and 10.2 rebounds. He could vie for first-team All-Big 12 honors.
19. Iowa State (16-4, 4-4 in Big 12): Much like last season, the Cyclones are excellent at Hilton Coliseum and mediocre away from it. Fred Hoiberg’s team is 1-3 in Big 12 road games.
18. Saint Louis (20-2, 7-0 in Atlantic 10): Dwayne Evans (14.9 points, 6.5 rebounds) is one of the nation’s most underrated players on one of the nation’s most underrated teams.
17. Iowa (17-5, 6-3 in Big Ten): Losing at home to Michigan State when the Spartans didn’t have Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson caused the Hawkeyes’ image to a take a hit.
16. Villanova (19-2, 7-1 in Big East): The Wildcats should win their next three games (against Xavier, Seton Hall and at DePaul) before a Feb. 16 rematch with Creighton that could decide the Big East title.
15. Virginia (17-5, 8-1 in ACC): Why aren’t more people talking about the Cavaliers? Seven of their eight ACC victories have come by double digits.
14, Louisville (18-4, 7-2 in AAC): Two days after falling at home to Cincinnati, the Cardinals used 27 points from Russ Smith to get by South Florida.
13. Kentucky (16-5, 6-2 in SEC): The next three games (at home against Ole Miss and on the road against Mississippi State and Auburn) shouldn’t present major problems.
12. Texas (17-4, 6-2 in Big 12): Rick Barnes entered the season on the hot seat. Now it may be time to give him an extension, or at the very least a raise.
11. Cincinnati (21-2, 10-0 in AAC): The Bearcats will face a tall task Saturday against an SMU squad that has yet to lose at home.
Record: 16-5, 8-1 in Big Ten
The Wolverines saw their 10-game winning streak snapped in Sunday’s 63-52 loss to Indiana in Bloomington. They’ll need to regroup in a hurry.
Michigan hosts Nebraska—a team it defeated by just one point Jan. 9—on Wednesday. After that Michigan plays four straight games against opponents (Iowa, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State) who were ranked in the last Associated Press poll.
Nik Stauskas averages a team-high 18.4 points while Glenn Robinson III contributes 13.4.
Record: 19-3, 8-1 in Big Ten
Injured forward Adreian Payne likely could’ve played against Georgetown Saturday, which probably would’ve made a difference in a game the Spartans lost 64-60. But coach Tom Izzo, understandably, wanted to give Payne some extra rest before Thursday’s much-more-important Big Ten game against Penn State.
Michigan State desperately needs Payne to be healthy following the loss of Branden Dawson, who broke his hand punching a table in frustration during a team film session.
Record: (18-3, 8-1 in Big East)
How poetic would it be if Doug McDermott’s decision to return for his senior year resulted in a Big East title for the Bluejays—and the Wooden Award for McDermott?
Both appear to be realistic possibilities.
McDermott, who averages 25 points per game, is the clear-cut leader for national player of the year honors, especially after Arizona’s Nick Johnson laid an egg in Saturday’s loss at Cal. Creighton also has a half-game lead over Villanova (7-1) in the Big East standings.
Creighton should beat DePaul at home on Friday, but a tough test looms Sunday in New York against surging St. John’s.
Record: (17-5, 6-3 in ACC)
Not many teams get as much praise following a loss as Duke received in the aftermath of Saturday’s 91-89 overtime setback at Syracuse.
The Blue Devils deserved it.
Mike Krzyzewski’s team showed a ton of toughness in the most daunting environment it will encounter all season. And let’s face it, Duke’s Rodney Hood probably should’ve been at the foul stripe with a chance to give his team the lead with nine seconds remaining in overtime, as Hood appeared to have been hacked on a dunk attempt. It’s tough to blame a game on a single call, though, and Duke’s players and coaches didn’t. Let’s hope the Feb. 22 rematch in Durham will be equally entertaining.
Record: (16-5, 7-1 in the Big 12)
The Jayhawks turned in one of the worst performances of the Bill Self era in Saturday’s 81-69 loss at Texas. Kansas looked completely rattled by the Longhorns, who were more physical inside and quicker on the perimeter.
Point guard Naadir Tharpe was particularly bad in his matchup with Isaiah Taylor, who scored 23 points while holding Tharpe to three. Also, Jayhawks leading scorer Andrew Wiggins tallied just seven points, continuing the string of inconsistency that has plagued him all season.
Kansas will face another tough test Tuesday against a Baylor squad that is high on momentum after beating Oklahoma State in Stillwater Saturday.
Record: (19-1, 8-0 in Mountain West)
The Aztecs have won 18 straight since falling to Arizona in the second game of the season. But Steve Fisher’s squad isn’t exactly blowing teams out. Seven of its last eight wins have come by an average of 6.7 points. Included in that stretch was an overtime victory at Utah State.
Still, Fisher should be a leading candidate for National Coach of the Year for what he’s done with the Aztecs, who didn’t receive a single vote in the Associated Press Preseason Top 25 poll.
Record: (23-0, 10-0 in Missouri Valley)
Whether the Shockers finish the regular season with an undefeated record could very well be decided this week, as road games against Indiana State (Wednesday) and Northern Iowa (Saturday) appear to be the toughest remaining games on the schedule.
Small forward Cleanthony Early is generally regarded as Wichita State’s best player, and he’s performed like it in recent weeks. Early, a senior, is averaging 19.5 points in his last four games.
Record: (19-2, 8-0 in SEC)
The only problem with the Gators is that its tough to measure their progress because they’re playing in such a weak conference. Florida has yet to play Missouri, Kentucky or LSU, which are generally regarded as the league’s top three teams behind the Gators.
Still, anytime you defeat a conference foe by 33 points—which Florida did Saturday against Texas A&M—you’re going to turn heads. Casey Prather (16.2 points) and Michael Frazier II (12.6) lead Florida in scoring. Highly-touted freshman forward Chris Walker has finally been deemed eligible to play by the NCAA, but it’s unlikely he’ll make an impact this season.
Record: 21-1 (8-1 in Pac-12)
The Wildcats suffered their first defeat of the season in a 60-58 setback at Cal Saturday, but even more disheartening was a broken foot suffered by Brandon Ashley that will sideline the forward for the rest of the season. Ashley ranks third on the team in scoring with 11.5 points per game and also averages 5.8 rebounds.
Arizona has a two-game lead on UCLA and Cal (both 6-3) in the conference race. But Sean Miller’s squad is much more vulnerable without Ashley. The Wildcats will have to rely on their stifling defense more than ever to remain a Final Four threat.
Record: 21-0 (8-0 in ACC)
Jim Boeheim moaned before the season that the Orange’s No. 8 ranking in the preseason was way too high for a team that lost its starting backcourt. Clearly, Boeheim underestimated himself.
The Hall of Fame coach appears to be getting better with age, as the Orange are the only school from a major conference that has yet to lose a game. Saturday’s 91-89 overtime victory against Duke before a record crowd in the Carrier Dome will go down as one of the best games in ACC history, but if Syracuse continues to play at this level, it will hardly be the highlight of their season.
This team is even better than the unit that reached the Final Four last spring.