We are getting closer to March Madness and the conference races are really heating up. Thanks to conference realignment, there are some emotional moments ahead as longtime rivalries end. But most fans are already starting to focus on postseason chances. From this point on, every game has big implications, especially for teams on “the bubble” and those vying for top seeds.
Here are some observations from the weekend:
Top seeds are far from set
We are inching closer to Selection Sunday on March 17. That’s close enough that bracketology talk becomes more serious but certainly is far from being set in stone. As always, there will be a lot of talk about the No. 1 seeds.
Who’s a lock? Right now you would probably include Indiana and Miami in that category. But what about the other two spots?
At this stage, five teams could be in the running for those two spots. And, yes, that means Duke might be sliding toward a No. 2 seed. You have to put Michigan, Michigan State, Gonzaga and Florida in the discussion, and something has to give by the big day.
In the mock selection session for the media that I participated in Thursday and Friday in Indianapolis, our overall No. 1 was Indiana, followed by Miami, then Duke and Michigan No. 4. Again, that was merely an exercise, and a prediction based on data to this point in the season and some faux results provided from the upcoming conference tournaments.
Duke is now three games out of first place in the ACC after losing to Maryland on Saturday. The Blue Devils are 7-3 in their past 10 games -- that’s no longer a tool used by the selection committee, but it is still reflective of this team’s performance. Ryan Kelly’s return remains in doubt and Mason Plumlee got outplayed by Alex Lin on Saturday. The resume is still good, and so is the RPI, but there are concerns for Duke -- at least in terms of a top seed.
Otto Porter and Georgetown are making a strong push to the finish line.
The team that couldn’t score suddenly sits in a three-way tie for first place in the Big East with Syracuse and Marquette. The Hoyas have won seven straight and are 19-4 overall and 9-3 in the Big East.
The streak hasn’t gone unnoticed because Georgetown is No. 11 in the new Associated Press poll after beating Cincinnati 62-55 on Friday. That offensive output was still lower than Georgetown’s season average of 64.2 points, which ranks 254th in the nation. But the Hoyas are so good defensively they can get away with the lower point production.
Since Jan. 1, Georgetown has scored more than 69 points only twice. Otto Porter remains one of the most overlooked players in the nation, and the Hoyas have definitely made enough improvement that they could find themselves with a No. 3 or No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. Two of Georgetown’s final six regular-season games are against Syracuse, as the curtain closes on that wonderful Big East rivalry.
Virginia had a chance to sweep the season series from North Carolina for the first time since 2002, but the Tar Heels put together a 53-point second half Saturday to beat the Cavaliers 93-81.
It was a big win for North Carolina’s NCAA chances. The Tar Heels were coming off consecutive losses to Miami and Duke, and Virginia is another team sitting on the NCAA bubble, so this was a big win in a lot of ways.
Check out Ken Davis' latest college basketball power rankings at FOXSports.com.
It’s clear the young Tar Heels are improving with every game, and the move to a smaller lineup paid off for coach Roy Williams. Even the 73-68 loss at Duke was encouraging as the Heels played so well on the road. North Carolina (17-8, 7-5 ACC) has some big opportunities remaining, playing NC State and Duke at home and traveling to Maryland.
Withey’s block party
The amazing story of Kansas center Jeff Withey continues to unfold. The 7-foot senior became the Big 12’s career blocks leader during Saturday’s 73-47 rout of Texas. And that’s amazing when you consider the former volleyball player had just 25 blocks total in his first two seasons with the Jayhawks.
The San Diego native originally committed to Louisville but he changed his mind after a death in the family increased his desire to play closer to home. He started his career at Arizona but when Lute Olson stepped down as coach, Withey transferred to Kansas.
Coach Bill Self and the Kansas staff had no idea what kind of player Withey would become, especially defensively. This season, he is averaging 13.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.0 blocks. He has 100 blocks this season with only 41 fouls. He not only keeps the majority of his blocks in play, his defensive stops often get the Jayhawks going in their transition offense.
With Nerlens Noel out, Kentucky's tourney hopes are fading fast.
Withey’s 32 blocks in the NCAA tournament last season helped KU to the national championship game, and he figures to be an enormous force again in this postseason.
Kentucky takes another step “out”
The defending national champions from Lexington were already getting roughed up by Florida last week before freshman big man Nerlens Noel tore his anterior cruciate ligament. Suddenly everyone wanted to know what impact the injury would have on Kentucky’s NCAA chances.
Mike Bobinski, chairman of the NCAA men’s basketball committee, summed it up this way: “The reality is we have about four and a half weeks of basketball left to be able to watch Kentucky play and to see how they perform without him in the lineup now, and that will really tell the story, I think, of how we ultimately judge and view Kentucky. It's way too early to consider them in, out, or in between.”
The Wildcats were out of the mock selection bracket completed by a media panel in Indianapolis on Friday. The next day, without Noel, the Wildcats lost to Tennessee, 88-58. It was the worst loss for coach John Calipari since Feb. 18, 1989, when his UMass team lost to Duquesne by 31 points.
But if the Wildcats end up in the NIT this season, don’t blame it on the Noel injury. Kentucky has done nothing to impress so far this season. The Wildcats are now 0-4 against teams ranked 1-50 and 4-4 against teams ranked 51-100 in the RPI.
Kentucky is running out of opportunities. Missouri and Florida still visit Lexington. Can Calipari get this squad to respond before it’s too late?