College basketball is buzzing with tournament play just a month away.
The calendar has turned to February, so college basketball teams are currently fighting for seeding or just to get in the NCAA Tournament. Missouri had a huge comeback win over Kansas in this weekend’s best game, while Duke suffered its second home loss in 15 days. Our editors answer three questions covering the best and worst from the college hoops week.
1. Who had the most damaging loss last weekend?
Nathan Rush: Duke's 78–74 overtime loss to Miami won't hurt the Blue Devils' NCAA Tournament seeding but it did further expose Coach K's team as both physically and mentally fragile. The Blue Devils were outscored 38–26 in the paint and missed all six of their free throws in overtime against the Hurricanes, who earned their first ever win at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Obviously frustrated after the game, Krzyzewski questioned his team's desire, saying that Duke's four national championships “were not won without energy, without hunger, with no complacency, with people really wanting it. … Those should be givens.” With this year's Dukies, however, those are not givens.
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch): Xavier let a great opportunity to pick up a quality win on the road slip away, losing a 10-point lead in the final eight minutes en route to a 72–68 loss to Memphis at FedExForum. The Musketeers climbed into the top 10 in early December after opening the season with eight straight wins but have been rather mediocre over the past two months. They are 7–8 since the infamous fight vs. Cincinnati, with only one of those wins (vs. Saint Joseph’s) coming against a top-80 RPI team. Xavier is currently ranked No. 53 in the RPI and will be included in most mock NCAA Tournament brackets this week, but Chris Mack’s club is flirting with disaster.
Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman): I thought Stanford's 56-43 home loss to Arizona was very damaging for its NCAA Tournament resume. The Cardinal have now lost four of their last five games after starting the season 15–3. Johnny Dawkins’ club had played well at Maples Pavilion until Saturday, when it shot 25.4 percent from the field on the way to a season-low 43 points. As it currently stands, the Pac-12 looks to have only two teams in Cal and Washington (and this is debatable) that will make the tourney field. Stanford is battling with the likes of Oregon, Arizona and Colorado to try and get a third league team into March Madness. The Cardinal severely hurt their chances with the home loss to the Wildcats, and they will need a strong run down the stretch to make the NCAA field.
2. Pick a team that was not in last week's top 25 that you think could possibly make a run to the Final Four.
Patrick Snow: Obviously the odds are long that a currently unranked team would advance to the Final Four, but I could see the West Virginia Mountaineers making a UConn-like run from the middle of the Big East pack to New Orleans. WVU has not played well lately, but coach Bob Huggins has a ton of NCAA Tournament experience. Additionally, he has two senior go-to guys in guard Truck Bryant and imposing post Kevin Jones. If that veteran duo can get some help from players like junior forward Deniz Kilicli (scored a career-high 22 points in Sunday’s win over Providence) or freshman guard Jabarie Hinds (has scored in double-digits in 10 of 24 games), then West Virginia is the type of grind-it-out club that could make a surprising run in March.
Nathan Rush: The Louisville Cardinals are a talented, battle-tested squad led by one of the best coaches in NCAA Tournament history. Rick Pitino has been to the Final Four five times with a record three different schools (Providence, Kentucky and Louisville), cutting down the nets after winning it all with Kentucky in 1996. This year's Cardinals club is capable of getting hot at the right time and making a run to the Final Four. The U of L has a streaky-hot point guard in Peyton Siva, an imposing 6'11" force down low in Gorgui Dieng and plenty of firepower on the wings with Kyle Kuric, Russ Smith and Chris Smith. As always, the team Pitino brings to the Big Dance will be dangerous.
Mitch Light: Temple is undervalued nationally. The Owls improved to 17–5 overall and 6–2 in the A-10 with a 73–56 win at Rhode Island on Saturday. They have wins over Wichita State, Villanova, Maryland and Duke in non-conference action and have emerged as the team to beat in what has become a deep A-10. Fran Dunphy’s club is led by a trio of veteran guards in Ramone Moore, Khalif Wyatt and Juan Fernandez who played a key role in last year’s NCAA Tournament team. Temple doesn’t get a lot of scoring from its front line but has some big bodies who play well defensively and get after it on the glass. With the right matchups, Temple is capable of winning several games — maybe even four — in the NCAAs.
3. Who is your National Coach of the Year at this point?
Mitch Light: Mike Brey has to be in the discussion. The veteran Notre Dame coach lost his best player, forward Tim Abromaitis, to a season-ending knee injury in mid-November. It took a while for the Irish to learn how to play with a re-tooled lineup, but Brey has been pushing all of the right buttons of late. Notre Dame has won four straight Big East games, highlighted by wins over Syracuse (undefeated at the time), at UConn and at home vs. Marquette, and is remarkably looking like a solid NCAA Tournament team.
Patrick Snow: I would have to go with Larry Eustachy at Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles are 20–3 and sitting on top of the Conference USA standings. USM lost its top three scorers off last year’s team in Gary Flowers (18.8 ppg), R.L. Horton (12.4 ppg) and D.J. Newbill (9.2 ppg), but Eustachy’s bunch has been surprisingly effective. The Golden Eagles have only lost at Denver in November, against undefeated Murray State in double-overtime and at Memphis. There are no stars on this USM team, but five players average between 13.3 and 9.7 points per game. The Golden Eagles were not picked to compete for the C-USA crown, but they are now the favorite to win the league with their balanced attack and solid rebounding.
Nathan Rush: Kentucky's John Calipari is ranked No. 1 in the nation, has a 23–1 record and is one defensive stop away — on a last-second shot at Indiana — from being undefeated. Coach Cal has assembled the finest collection of talent in the nation, with five-star freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teaque joining sophomore studs Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb to form a nearly unstoppable talent base. Calipari hand-picked the country's best team on the recruiting trail and is coaching them up to their potential on the court. He's the best in the business right now, and deserves to be acknowledged as such.