Which team had the best weekend, as far as improving its NCAA profile?
Nathan Rush: Notre Dame’s 50–48 victory at Connecticut on Saturday was another impressive win for the Fighting Irish’s NCAA Tournament résumé. Coach Mike Brey’s club also boasts wins over then-No. 1 Syracuse, Pittsburgh and at Louisville in double-overtime. ND hopes those triumphs overshadow its lopsided losses to Missouri (87–58), at Gonzaga (73–53) and at Cincinnati (71–55). There is still work to be done down the stretch in Big East play, but Notre Dame’s chances improved with this weekend’s win at UConn.
Mitch Light: Iowa State played its way into most mock brackets this week with a 72–64 win over Kansas in Ames. It was the first top-50 RPI win of the season for the Cyclones, who are 15–6 overall and 5–3 in the Big 12. Fred Hoiberg’s club has some wins that look good on paper — vs. Texas, Iowa and Oklahoma State at home and at Texas A&M — but of that group, only Texas at No. 59, is in the top 100 of the RPI. Iowa State still has plenty of work to do, but it’s always nice to have a win over a top-10 team in your back pocket on Selection Sunday.
Mark Ross: Notre Dame has posted quality wins the past two weekends. Last Saturday, the Fighting Irish welcomed No. 1 Syracuse to South Bend and handed the previously undefeated Orange their first loss of the season and paired that by defeating UConn, 50–48, on the road this past Sunday. Mike Brey’s team has won its last three Big East games to put them near the top of the crowded conference standings. Notre Dame struggled with injuries and inconsistency early on, but seems to have found its identity and is starting to put together a respectable NCAA Tournament résumé. The Irish’s next opportunity to make a statement comes on Saturday when they host Marquette, one of the teams they currently trail in the Big East standings.
Name a mid-major team that you are most confident can win at least one game in the NCAA Tournament. And pick a true mid-major — not a team like Gonzaga, Memphis for Xavier.
Mitch Light: I’ll take Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders missed an opportunity for a huge résumé-building win last weekend — dropping an 84–77 decision at Vanderbilt — but this is a team that is built for success in March. Kermit Davis’ club boasts one of the best big men in the mid-major ranks in Iowa State transfer LaRon Dendy (14.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg), and the Raiders feature a solid guard rotation led by Marcos Knight, Bruce Massey and Raymond Cintron. This team can score, but its forte is on the defensive end of the court. The Blue Raiders are allowing an average of 60.3 points per game and opponents are shooting 38.4 percent from the field. Middle Tennessee’s at-large hopes aren’t great, but I fully expect this team to win the Sun Belt Tournament title and emerge as a popular upset pick in the NCAAs.
Nathan Rush: Murray State has raced out to a 21–0 record, including an impressive win at Memphis in December. No team from a big six BCS conference wants to draw the Racers in the first round of the NCAA Tourney. First-year coach Steve Prohm’s team is capable of making a mini-run in March. The pride of the OVC has a reliable veteran backcourt duo of junior Isaiah Canaan (18.7 ppg, 3.8 apg) and senior Donte Poole (14.7 ppg), and a solid post presence with 6’7" senior Ivan Aska (12.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg) — a trio that shoots a combined 84.5 percent from the free throw line.
Mark Ross: I’m going to take Long Beach State, who you could argue is one of the West Coast’s top teams. The 49ers are 16–6 overall and a perfect 9–0 in the Big West. This is a veteran team that hasn’t shied away from playing top-notch competition and has had its fair share of success in those games. Long Beach State defeated then-No. 9 Pitt on the road in its second game of the season and followed that up by taking San Diego State to overtime on the Aztecs’ home court before losing by four. The 49ers played Kansas and North Carolina in back-to-back games on the road in the first part of December and held their own, losing to Kansas by eight and to the Tar Heels by six. The 49ers have also played Louisville and Kansas State, and have a late December neutral court win over Xavier on their résumé, which currently finds them ranked in the top 40 of the RPI. The 49ers need to stay focused on their immediate goal, which is to win the automatic bid out of the Big West, but should they come up short this is certainly a team worthy of at-large consideration. An NCAA Tournament bid would be the program’s first since 2007, and this is the type of team no one wants to face in March.
Which player impressed you the most over the past weekend?
Mitch Light: We’ve been waiting for Terrence Jones to break out, and that’s exactly what happened Saturday afternoon in Baton Rouge. Kentucky’s sophomore forward, a preseason first-team All-American by many media outlets, scored 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting and grabbed nine rebounds as Kentucky cruised to an easy win over LSU. Jones averaged 15.7 points and 8.8 boards as a freshman, but is down to 12.4 and 6.5 as a sophomore. He has been overshadowed by the newest wave of elite UK freshmen — most notably Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — but Jones is still a very important part of this team and a guy who will have to play well for the Wildcats to win a national championship.
Nathan Rush: Arizona lost a heartbreaker to Washington, 69–67, on Saturday night, but Solomon Hill did all he could to lead the Wildcats to victory. The underrated junior from Los Angeles scored 28 points — going 9-of-10 from the field, 8-of-9 from the free throw line and 2-of-2 from 3-point range, including a game-tying trifecta with 6.9 seconds remaining. The 6’6", 226-pound Hill also added 11 rebounds and committed only one turnover in a game-high 37 minutes. But the effort wasn’t enough and, for the third time in five games, Zona lost a contest by two points or less.
Mark Ross: Ten minutes into Saturday’s Marquette vs. Villanova game, the Golden Eagles were down 28–10 to a Wildcats team that had just 10 wins the entire season. Halfway through the first half, Darius Johnson-Odom, Marquette’s senior guard and leading scorer, had managed just one made three throw. In the 30 minutes of action that followed, Johnson-Odom poured in 25 points, along with six rebounds, five assists and two steals, as Marquette outscored Villanova, 72–50, and escaped the Wildcats’ home floor with a hard-fought 82–78 win. Even though Marquette is well on its way to an NCAA Tournament bid, the Golden Eagles could ill afford a slip up against a reeling Villanova team whose only hope to make it to March Madness probably lies with winning the Big East Tournament.