On behalf of the college basketball world, I’d like to welcome all you NFL fans to our annual madness party. And you NBA folks whose bash doesn’t start for another two months, welcome to you as well. Please, everyone, pull up a chair. Grab some chips. Get a cold one out of the fridge.
And allow me to set the table.
The NCAA tournament is a great show, but the next four weeks will be filled with plenty of drama. That’s because lots of teams will be trying to play their way into the tournament or to the top of the seed line. So to get you familiar with what you might have missed, here’s a conference-by-conference breakdown of how things look – for now, anyway.
The best: North Carolina. The Tar Heels got blitzed by 33 points at Florida State, but they are still the most talented team in the conference, maybe the entire country. No team has ever lost a game during the season by that margin and gone on to win a title, so the Heels still have some work to do.
The bubble: Miami. The Hurricanes added two important pieces to their lineup in December. One of those pieces, senior center Reggie Johnson, scored 27 points in the Hurricanes’ win at Duke last Sunday. They’re not in yet, but the trajectory is good.
The sleeper: N.C. State. Mark Gottfried’s team is ranked 55th in the RPI, so it’s well-positioned to get a bid if it can pull off a surprising win or two.
The best: Missouri. I actually think Kansas may be the better team, but the Tigers earned the right to be called the class of this league. Besides their comeback win over the Jayhawks in Columbia, they also handled a very good Baylor team in Waco two weeks ago.
The bubble: Iowa State. The Cyclones are right in the thick of things thanks to their home upset of the Jayhawks.
The sleeper: Oklahoma. Lon Kruger has done a terrific job in year one. The Sooners lost eight of their first 11 games in the conference but they do have a sweep over Kansas State on their resume. They may not make the tournament, but they could spoil someone else’s chances.
The best: Syracuse. This one’s a no-brainer. The Orange weathered the Bernie Fine scandal last fall and dodged a bullet when sophomore center Fab Melo was reinstated after sitting out for three games. This is a down year in the Big East, but it is a very up year for the Orange.
The bubble: UConn. Is it possible the national champs won’t even be back in the tournament? It’s not only possible, it’s looking ever more likely. With Jim Calhoun taking a leave of absence because of back problems, the Huskies were embarrassed at Louisville on Monday, losing for the fifth time in their last six outings. If they can’t get over .500 heading into the Big East tournament, they could be on the outside looking in on Selection Sunday.
The sleeper: Pittsburgh. It’s hard to believe the Panthers have a shot at the tournament after they lost their first seven conference games, but after getting junior point guard Tray Woodall back into the lineup, they have played themselves into the picture. The selection committee takes into account injuries and personnel issues, so Woodall’s return will doubly work in this team’s favor.
The best: Ohio State. The Buckeyes have a player of the year candidate in Jared Sullinger, and arguably the best all-around point guard in America in Aaron Craft. Their ceiling might not be as high as Kentucky’s, but they are less likely to lose a game they shouldn’t in the NCAA tournament.
The bubble: Purdue. The Boilermakers are only ranked 64th in the RPI, and they’ve been hovering right on the .500 mark in conference play all season. Fortunately, two teams they beat in nonconference play, Temple and Miami, are playing pretty good basketball right now.
The sleeper: Northwestern. We’re all gonna feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick Lucy’s football again, but the Wildcats earned a spot on the bubble with their big win at Illinois. They are ranked 37th in the RPI and play in the nation’s best conference, so they have a very real chance to play in the school’s first-ever NCAA tournament.
The best: Washington. The Pac 12 is only considered a “power conference” because it is a member of football’s BCS. But it’s possible this league could only send one team to the NCAA tournament. The Huskies may be the best of a pretty poor crop, but their nonconference slate was so bad that even if they win the Pac 12’s regular season crown, they still might need to win the league tournament to be assured of a place in the tournament.
The bubble: California. The Bears actually have a better case for an at-large than Washington, partly because they beat the Huskies in Seattle last month. Cal is ranked 48th in the RPI, so if it can win the Pac 12 regular season title then I think it will get an at-large bid even if it loses in the league tournament.
The sleeper: Arizona. The Wildcats’ RPI ranking is second only to Cal’s among Pac 12 schools. Their win at Cal is a nice feather in their cap, but they will probably have to run the table the rest of the regular season to be in the at-large conversation.
The best: Kentucky. This is obviously an easy call. If you haven’t gotten a chance to see much of UK freshman Anthony Davis, be sure to check him out asap. He has already set a single-season school record for blocks, and he is on a very short list for national player of the year.
The bubble: Alabama. The Crimson Tide have had their stumbles, but they are sitting pretty at No. 31 in the RPI. If they can finish .500 in league play I think they’ll have a great chance for an at-large.
The sleeper: Ole Miss. The good news for Andy Kennedy’s crew is they are ranked 51st in the RPI, have a nonconference win over Miami, and in league play they have beaten Arkansas and Mississippi State at home. The bad news is they still have to play at Mississippi State, Kentucky and Tennessee, and they will face Vanderbilt at home. If the Rebels play their way into the NCAA tournament, they will certainly have earned it.