Athlon Editors Discuss 5 Burning College Hoops Questions.
1. Will Alabama make the NCAA Tournament?
Mitch Light: Never thought I would say this after the Tide lost to Seton Hall, Iowa and St. Peter’s in a four-day stretch in November at the Paradise Jam, but yes, the Tide will make the NCAA Tournament. It won’t be easy, though. With an RPI in the mid-90s heading into Thursday’s game at Vanderbilt, Alabama (currently 15–7 and 7–1) needs to win at least 12 games in league play — assuming it doesn’t win the SEC Tournament. The Tide only have two top-90 wins, but one was vs. Kentucky (No. 11) and the other was at Tennessee (No. 21). They still have three games vs. top-40 opponents — at Vanderbilt, at Florida and vs. Georgia. If the Tide can somehow win two of those three, they should be in decent shape, especially with the field now at 68 teams.
Nathan Rush: After starting the season 5–6, Anthony Grant’s Crimson Tide have gone 10–1 since — losing on the road at Arkansas (70–65). During that stretch, Alabama’s defense has looked like a Nick Saban scheme. Anchored by 6’8” pivot JaMychal Green and athletic wingman Tony Mitchell, Bama is in a position to play its way into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006. And once the Tide rolls into March, the 44-year-old Grant has proven he can pull off an upset or two.
Braden Gall: Let’s say Bama loses at Vandy, Ole Miss and Florida. We would actually have to ask ourselves if a 12–4 SEC record is good enough? The Tide have two should-be huge wins, at Tennessee and over Kentucky, but those two teams have combined for 14 losses. How can you put a team into the tourney with loses to Iowa, Seton Hall, Providence and St. Peter’s? The other non-conference tests — Oklahoma State, Purdue — resulted in losses, too. They have to finish at least 13–3 in a league that might actually be worse than last year’s Pac-10 (I am only kidding, sort of).
2. What team impressed you the most last week?
Mitch: I’ll go with Kansas, which won by 20 at Nebraska on Saturday and then pounded a good Missouri team, 103–86, in an offensive clinic Monday night in Lawrence. Playing without freshman Josh Selby, the Jayhawks shot a sparkling 60.7 percent from the field (and 57.9 percent from three) against Mizzou. After struggling a bit with some closer-than-expected wins last month, Kansas has been playing as well as any team in the country over the past few weeks.
Nathan: Florida made a statement last week with wins over Vanderbilt (65–61, OT) and Kentucky (70–68) at the O’Dome. Billy Donovan’s teams have been a disappointment since winning back-to-back national titles in 2006 and ‘07, but this year’s club is starting to show signs of life. With senior point-forward Chandler Parsons, streak-shooting combo guards Ervin Walker and Kenny Boynton, and plenty of size — Vernon Macklin (6’10”, 245), Alex Tyus (6’8”, 220) and Patric Young (6’9”, 245) — down low, “Billy the Kid” has all the pieces in place for another NCAA run.
Braden: Wisconsin. Both wins were at home, but a nine-point win over Purdue and a 26-point drubbing of rival Michigan State is about as good as it gets. The Badgers get Ohio State at home on Saturday, and the Buckeyes had their own great week with wins over the school from up North and at Minnesota. The Buckeyes made the trip into the Barn look way too easy. (Honorable Mention: Syracuse, UCLA, Alabama, Oregon).
3. What first year coach has done the best job?
Mitch: Dana Altman at Oregon. The long-time Creighton coach (and one-time K-State boss) inherited a depleted roster from Ernie Kent. The Ducks went 7–11 in the Pac-10 last season and were expected by many — including Athlon Sports — to finish in last place in the league. But Altman has coaxed a 5–6 Pac-10 record from this group heading into Thursday’s game at UCLA. The Ducks have won four of their last five, highlighted by a sweep of Washington State and Washington, two probable NCAA Tournament teams.
Nathan: It’s been an up and down season for St. John’s first-year coach Steve Lavin — with impressive wins over Duke, Notre Dame and Georgetown, but ugly losses to St. Bonaventure and Fordham. Still, I love seeing Lavin coaching the Red Storm. Lavin’s team has gotten better as the year has progressed, and if he can recruit New York City like he did the L.A. area back in the day, St. John’s could become a Big East contender in the near future.
Braden: O Donnie, Donnie, where for art thou Donnie? Donnie Jones at UCF was the easy choice after a 14–0 start. But he now sits at 1–7 in C-USA play. Therefore, it is tough not to go with Steve Lavin at St. John’s. The Red Storm missed a chance at a another quality non-conference win with the seven-point loss at UCLA. But with wins over Notre Dame, Georgetown, Northwestern and West Virginia, Lavin has St. John’s poised for its first NCAA berth since 2002.
4. Do you have a problem with 11 teams from the Big East making the NCAA Tournament?
Mitch: Not at all. The goal of the Selection Committee is to select the best 37 teams in the country for the at-large invitations. It shouldn’t matter one bit where those teams come from. As recently as two seasons ago, seven of the 11 Big Ten teams (or 63.6 percent) made the Tournament. If 11 Big East teams make it this season, that is 68.7 percent of the league — more than the Big Ten percentage, but not by much.
Nathan: I have no problem with 11 Big East teams making the NCAA Tournament this year. Big East teams are tougher and more battle-tested than any in the country, after playing well-coached clubs with loaded rosters — like Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Syracuse, Louisville and Villanova, just to name a few (or seven) — all season.
Braden: Absolutely not. It is the question that members of the Selection Committee have to ask themselves every year: Do they want the best 37 at-large teams to compete for the championship? Or do they want to reward teams (like 2005-06 Air Force) for having great seasons in lesser leagues? If 10 (not including the Big East tourney champ) of the best 37 at-large teams hail from one league, so be it.
5. Which game this weekend are you most looking forward to?
Mitch: Ohio State takes its undefeated record the Kohl Center, where Wisconsin is an unthinkable 75–6 in Big Ten games under Bo Ryan. Wisconsin is flying a bit under the radar, but this team is playing very well. The defense, as usual, has been outstanding (none of UW’s last five opponents has scored more than 60 points), and the offense has been remarkably efficient. Jordan Taylor is playing the point guard position as well as anyone in the nation. This should be a great ballgame. Go with the Badgers!
Nathan: This may be the best weekend lineup all season, with Ohio State at Wisconsin, Pittsburgh at Villanova, Syracuse at Louisville and Kentucky at Vanderbilt. But the Cats and Commodores are who I want to see play. Both of these clubs have been wildly inconsistent but have shown flashes of Elite Eight (maybe Final Four?) potential. This is a pivotal game for both John Calipari and Kevin Stallings. Kentucky needs to prove it can win in a hostile environment — which Memorial Gymnasium certainly is — and Vanderbilt must find some “killer instinct” to be considered a legit threat come Tournament time.
Braden: The nation’s No. 1 team, off to arguably its best start in school history with arguably the best player in the nation, will do battle with the winningest coach in Big Ten history. Ohio State has never won at the Kohl Center and that is all Wisconsin does there. Bo Ryan is 149–11 overall and 75–6 in Big Ten play over nine-plus years in Madison. Something has to give.